‘Robots’ To Propel Patriot Missile Production Amid Ukraine, Taiwan Demand; China Too Goes Automated

The war in Ukraine, the emerging flashpoint with China in the western Pacific, and the replenishment of the US military’s stockpiles of Patriot PAC-3 air defense missiles are all driving up production numbers of the systems in US arms factories, particularly the most advanced and capable variant, the Missile Segment Enhancement (PAC-3 MSE). 

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While Lockheed Martin, which makes the PAC-3 MSE, is now building nearly 500 units a year and stabilizing its supply chain of various parts and components, RTX (formerly Raytheon) is focusing on the European market by building a supplier base there for customers in the continent. This is for an earlier Patriot variant, the PAC-2 GEM-T.

What marks the new industrial efforts is the introduction of robotic and automated systems in the missile production and assembly lines. This is consistent with the advent of Industry 4.0 (or the Fourth Industrial Revolution), which characterizes the current century.

Coalescing with other technological revolutions like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and Cloud Computing, Industry 4.0 promises to improve the way companies manufacture and distribute their products.

Important AD Missile Dor Both Ukraine & Taiwan

The Patriot is the leading and most advanced surface-to-air (SAM) system sent to Ukraine, primarily supplied from German military inventories. It has been responsible for the downing of several Russian Su-34 fighters and Kh-101 missiles.

In the Pacific, Taiwan, too, uses the Patriot. It last announced an exercise with the missile on March 26, testing the “command and control of joint air defense operations among the three branches of the military.” This comes amid bolder Chinese aerial intrusions into its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and naval drills in the seas surrounding the island that have become comprehensive and provocative.

Production Increase

According to a report from Defense News, Lockheed was building 350 MSE missiles a year in 2018 and was working to ramp up its production to 500 missiles a year before the Russia-Ukraine war in February 2022. Now fully funded by the US Army to build 550 missiles a year at its Camden, Arkansas, production line, by December 2023, it had recorded 500 missiles.

A new “automated” 85,000 sq ft facility to make PAC-3 MSE missiles promises a “smoother and more efficient process.” While the Army has yet to fund another missile production increase, Lockheed decided to proceed with some internal funding towards the goal in the latter half of 2022 and manufacture 650 missiles. It is now looking at 2027 to attain the number.

A part of the effort is “stabilizing the supply chain” from other defense majors like Aerojet Rocketdyne and Boeing, which manufacture the solid-rocket motor and the seeker, respectively. Aerojet Rocketdyne is co-located in the same industrial park as Lockheed in Camden, while Boeing has spent its capital to keep up with demand.

While it is unclear if the US Army sees a need to ramp up its Patriot missile production beyond 650 missiles a year, experts and US Army leaders say having a large inventory is important.

Emily Harding, deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pentagon must encourage industry to continue investments that allow for the rapid production of much-needed missiles.

During a December defense conference in Washington, D.C., Army acquisition chief Doug Bush sent out a subtle signal, stating that while the use of the Patriot “has been manageable for Ukraine because they have other systems that are helping as well … the long-term challenge of just having Patriot missiles for a Pacific scenario is the other reason we are asking Congress for support of that investment.” The Army is “providing stuff out of stock. The build-back time is the concern,” he added.

Bush said the service needed “supplemental funding” to manufacture more PAC-3 MSE weapons. He noted the pending request before Congress to replenish American arms sent to Ukraine, which included $750 million to help Lockheed increase capacity by more than 100 a year. While the Senate passed the bill, which included a Ukraine aid package that would contribute to ramping up the PAC-3 MSE capability, the legislation has been held up in the House.

The US Army is now considering late 2024 as the date it will award a “multiyear contract” for PAC-3 MSE. Even without US Army funds, Lockheed Martin has noted that the demand for PAC-3 MSE continues to grow.

New Factories With Internal Funding 

Lockheed has continued internal investments and has been talking to the Army about how much more it should ramp up production. Even without Army funds, “demand for PAC-3 MSE just continues to increase,” as it signed six letters of approval last year from international customers.

Lockheed is also pitching the PAC-3 MSE to the US Navy, spending $100 million to integrate it with the service’s Aegis combat system. The company plans to test whether it can fire the missiles from a vertical launch system tied into Aegis’s command-and-control technology and the SPY-1 radar. If successful, the company hopes the Navy or Pentagon will conduct further tests that could lead to an initial operational capability on a ship.

Boeing, which supplies the seeker for the PAC-3 MSE missile, also spent its funds to align with Lockheed’s increase in production plans, investing in a 35,000 sq ft factory expansion. This translates into a 30% increase in production capacity.

The new facility, too, will have a variety of automated systems that can undertake “inspections” and “robotic soldering” to meet “much higher” demands above 650. Solid-rocket fuel supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne also opened a 51,000 sq ft facility in the same industrial park in 2022, where it is producing the PAC-3 MSE propulsion system. Aerojet has recorded a 61% increase in rocket motor production from about 70,000 in 2021 to 115,000 in 2023.

Patriot missile system
File Image: Patriot missile system

China’s Fully Automated Cruise Missile Production

China already seems to have taken the lead in arms manufacturing through robotized factory lines, with a report from October 2023 showing one such facility assembling cruise missiles. The “fully automated” cruise missile “production line” can complete “high-precision and low-error work efficiency without manual assistance.”

“Moreover, the development of production lines is not only the development of a single process but, more importantly, the cooperation between various steps, which requires the development of high-precision equipment and the improvement of artificial intelligence technology,” the report on Baidu said.

The report pointed out that it incorporates “artificial intelligence” in the production process and added that the facility was ahead of even “developed” industrial countries like the US, which is “still in the stage of semi-automated processing and production.” One claim even said the automated cruise missile factory could produce one thousand missiles a day.