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Pentagon Demotes Airborne Laser Program
The multibillion-dollar Airborne Laser program, considered the Pentagon's best chance to develop a weapon to defeat ballistic missiles in their early, boost phase of flight, is being relegated to a technology demonstration status while a planned five-aircraft purchase by the Air Force is put on hold due to questions surrounding ABL's future, a senior Defense Department official said Feb. 6.
ABL officials now are solely focused on attempting to shoot down a target missile during a test the Missile Defense Agency has scheduled for late calendar year 2008. The agency has deferred the purchase of a second aircraft and the engineering studies needed for it until after the shoot-down test, the official told reporters the day the Defense Department unveiled its fiscal year 2007 budget. MDA and lead contractor Boeing continue to develop the first prototype 747-400 aircraft that will be used in the 2008 test.
The official called ABL “a different program now” and said it is considered a demonstration project “until shoot-down, then it will be serious time.”
The Air Force began the program in 1996, setting development costs at $2.5 billion and projecting that fielding would start in 2006. But by August 2001 the service revised its estimates, saying the cost would be about 50 percent more and the schedule stretched another four years, according to a July 2002 report by the Government Accountability Office. In October 2001, the Defense Department gave program management to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, MDA's predecessor.
The plan has been for MDA and the Air Force to develop two prototype aircraft and then transition the effort to the Air Force. The service had plans to buy five more aircraft, which would give it a seven-aircraft fleet. These aircraft would be divided between two combat theaters.
The DOD official last week pegged the cost of the second aircraft “in the vicinity of $275 million.”
That price does not include the laser payload, “which of course is much more expensive than the aircraft,” he added. “A lot of what we have done with aircraft No. 1 would not have to be repeated. But there is a lot of work to be done and I can't give you a cost estimate for what it would be because I don't have a cost estimate.”
The Air Force was expected to purchase ABL aircraft Nos. 3-7, the official said. “They are talking about the force level the Air Force would pay for and sustain. And as we have moved the program to the right they have deferred their investment in additional aircraft to the right, as you would expect them to do,” he added. Moving a program “to the right” is Pentagon jargon for moving program plans farther into the future.
MDA is developing its programs in two-year “block” increments, starting with Block 2004.
In its FY-07 budget request, the agency is asking Congress to approve $595 million for Block 2006 activities. The agency's future ABL budget estimates hold that $543 million is needed in FY-08 for Block 2008 work and $417 million will be needed in FY-09 for Block 2008 work. Block 2010 work will require $416 million in 2010 and $648 million in FY-11, according to an overview of MDA's FY-07 budget the agency released Feb. 6.
MDA says it has chosen to delay trade studies and the second ABL aircraft until after the shoot-down in 2008 “to allow for a design turn on the aircraft,” according to the budget overview. “During the period up to the lethal shoot-down, the program manager will capture additional knowledge that will assist in future design alternatives for the second ABL; in addition, this realignment has added flexibility to the overall [Ballistic Missile Defense] program by making resources available for other efforts and allowing us to avoid premature termination of promising technologies.”
Deferring the trade studies means a two-year delay in buying the second ABL aircraft, MDA said. “Despite this change, the ABL program remains our primary boost phase intercept effort and [it] made significant progress during [calendar year] 2005,” the agency said.
The decisions surrounding ABL raises questions about MDA's boost-phase programs, as the agency has also made changes to the second effort, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor. Based on a recommendation by the Defense Science Board, MDA started the KEI program in 2003 as an alternative to ABL.
Last year MDA was set to spend about $1 billion on the KEI effort , but after the Pentagon handed the agency a mandate to cut $5 billion from its budget between FY-06 and FY-11 its leaders decided to take $800 million from KEI in FY-06. The program had run up against technology difficulties, so the agency decided to focus on developing the fast-burning propulsion system needed to generate the high speeds to get an interceptor toward a missile during the missile's boost phase.
In FY-07 the agency has further adjusted KEI's development “in order to focus resources on current Ground-Based Midcourse and Aegis BMD efforts, particularly as they relate to mission assurance and quality,” the agency said in its FY-07 budget overview.
KEI program officials have scheduled a key test of the propulsion system in 2008, and MDA has maintained that test date in its FY-07 budget, “but the overall result of rebalancing these resources is to delay the fielding of the first KEI fire unit from Block 2012 to Block 2014,” according to the agency's budget overview.
The DOD official said last week the agency is “not committing the funding to complete the program” until KEI successfully demonstrates the propulsion system in 2008. “So in 2008 there are two knowledge points,” he said. “For ABL it is the shoot-down. For KEI it is a test of the propulsion stack. We will not flesh out the funding until then.”