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Space and Missile Defense Conference
Military leaders and defense contractors gather in Huntsville, Ala., for the annual Space and Missile Defense Conference.

In Huntsville, they usually call it SMD, but this year it’ll be vSMD. That little “v” stands for “virtual,” and it is where the news begins about this week’s annual Space & Missile Defense symposium.

In years past – and next year, too, everyone hopes - 4,000-4,500 aerospace and defense company executives converge on the Von Braun Center along with military officers, weaponry wizards and reporters. They attend briefings by generals on military priorities, prowl a giant showroom floor of booths spotlighting the latest work by the nation’s biggest defense contractors and huddle over smaller conversations at dinner.

This year, it’ll be virtual briefings and virtual presentations. “We’re just going to be different,” Raytheon Technologies’ Huntsville site executive Patti Dare said Monday. Raytheon Technologies is one of the event’s major sponsors.

Symposiums like SMD are important to companies for what they can learn about military priorities and their competitors’ solutions. But they’re also important for reinforcing a commitment to what everyone here calls “the mission.” The mission is protecting America from potential military threats, and people in Huntsville and who come here for events like this are very serious about it.

“I go in the office once or twice a week just to check on things as the Huntsville site executive,” Dare said, “and the morale of the people has just been astonishing to me. They’re still very upbeat, they want to support the warfighter, they’re all about the mission, they want to help their coworkers.”

SMD and events like it are also important to the city and its hotels, restaurants, bars and car rental companies. They bring millions of dollars to city bank accounts through lodging, sales and gasoline taxes, and their absence this year is one reason city budgets are facing a $15 million shortfall.

On the positive side, they are also the big reason four new hotels are under construction or planned in downtown Huntsville now. The city is becoming a regional entertainment and youth sports destination, but conferences like this are key to the plan.

But can a virtual military conference get the mission accomplished? “(Floor interaction) will definitely be missing,” Dare said, “and that’s a big benefit to us to have different networking sessions and finding capabilities just by wandering around and talking to folks.” But the work “is deemed critical to the nation,” Dare noted, and that means doing what it takes to keep communication going with customers and suppliers. “It’s important that we stay focused on what the warfighters’ needs are,” Dare said, “and one way for us to do it is this symposium.”

Raytheon Technologies is in some ways a classic Huntsville defense contractor. It started as Raytheon, merged recently with United Technologies, and includes Collins Aerospace and Pratt Whitney. The new company is in radar, missiles, helicopters and aviation engines, among other things. Dare said the CEO of the new combined Raytheon Technologies has already visited Huntsville “to see what makes sense to move here.”

Dare isn’t sure big events like SMD will return quickly. “But will we have forums to have these discussions? Absolutely,” she said. “You find a new way to interact, a new way to do business, and you get really creative in how to support the community and how to help these industries that are suffering now.”

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