Patrolling the skies



Col. Reid Vander Schaaf, PhD, sensors development project manager, U.S. Department of Defense, Huntsville, Alabama, USA



In 1984, the U.S. Department of Defense formed the Sensors Program Directorate in response to the Soviet threat. Its directive was to help protect the United States by creating radar technology that could detect ballistic missiles. Three decades later, that remains the office's primary purpose even as its scope has broadened to protect deployed forces and allies in military theaters.

In June 2013, Col. Reid Vander Schaaf began leading the office. He brings a wealth of expertise to the project manager role. After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he earned three master's degrees: structural engineering and construction engineering management degrees from Stanford University and a strategic studies degree from the U.S. Air Force's Air War College. He later got his doctorate in system-of-systems engineering from Purdue University.

In addition to his long military career and many project manager roles, Vander Schaaf has taught at West Point. As a professor, he learned how to tell stories, which served him well as a project manager. “That's how you communicate with people,” he says.

There are three kinds. The first two are homeland defense radars: a ground-based radar developed in the mid-‘90s and the Sea-Based X-band (SBX) radar. After the events of September 11th, there was urgency to increase homeland defense—that's the origin of the Sea-Based X-band radar. It can see a baseball from 2,500 miles [4,023 kilometers] away.

The third radar system is the AN/TPY-2 [the Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance] radar. We're contracted to build 12 of those. Ten have been delivered, and two are still in production.

What do these radars do?

They search airspace to find and track ballistic missiles. But the other important thing they do—and the thing that X-bands are particularly well suited for—is discrimination. When there's a launch of a missile, lots of things end up in flight with it. The job of the Missile Defense Agency is to find and intercept the lethal warhead. But you'll have the tank, the boosters and debris, and there can be intentional countermeasures as well. This can make it really hard to find and intercept the lethal object with our missiles to protect our homeland and our assets in theater. Intercepting something traveling in space hundreds to thousands of miles away is very challenging.

What projects does your office execute to overcome that challenge?

Every year or two there's a new software build related to discrimination in particular. One of the roles I have is overseeing development of a long-range discrimination radar, which is going to start this year—a new Alaska-based radar for discrimination. We're developing the requirements and capabilities of that system. We also have other TPY radars in production.

So there's a big focus on increasing our ability to distinguish the lethal object.

Why has discrimination become a more urgent concern?

Threats continue to grow in number and capability. Whereas in the past we were dealing with relatively simple threats, at least from the smaller rogue states, those countries’ capabilities have continued to increase. If we look out another five to 10 years—and it takes us that long to develop new capabilities, too—it looks like they're going to have the capability to add countermeasures to make it harder for us to determine what the lethal object is.

“[Project management standards] ensure that we're following all the different systems engineering processes to determine what looks promising to continue to mature and test.”


How does your office use project management standards when developing software capabilities?

Project management standards help ensure program success, and they do that by giving us best practices and a structure that helps ensure rigor. They ensure that we're following all the different systems engineering processes to determine what looks promising to continue to mature and test, and to ensure it has independent verification. The Missile Defense Agency has a robust test program to make sure these things really work before we field them.

What does the testing phase look like?

We build a little, test a little. We're building incredibly complex, challenging capabilities. Intercontinental ballistic missile intercepts approach 10,000 miles [16,093 kilometers] per hour—exo-atmospheric, so way up in space. We have very small margins of error. So we build a bit of capability, test it and make sure we don't get unintended consequences—that's been a big risk—before we keep building and continue to add the next capabilities.

It takes longer, but because we're shooting down missiles and launching missiles, we don't want anything to go wrong. So it is very much a continual build process.

How has the U.S. budget “sequestration” of 2013, which lowered defense spending, affected your office?

It's made for a challenging environment, especially given uncertainty around future funding. But so far we've mitigated that. Some things have been delayed a bit, but discrimination has been a very high priority and that's actually received additional funding. PM

IMG Small Talk

Best professional advice you've ever received?

Maintain your balance. You need to be balanced in life, because work can really consume your time.

The one skill every project manager should have?

The ability to build a team with a shared vision.

Favorite thing to do in your spare time?

Running. I try hard to stay at 40 miles [64 kilometers] a week. My kids both run cross-country, so I run with them.




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