"After years of development, the Pentagon is about to learn whether its investment of time and millions of dollars in the Airborne Laser missile defense system has paid off," Aviation Week notes.The Airborne Laser -- a modified 747 that shoots chemically-powered beams of ultrahot light -- has been in the works since the Reagan years. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and Air Force have been developing components for the plane's current iteration since 1996.

But during the course of the next year all those elements will have to be integrated to confront one major remaining challenge: shooting down a boosting ballistic missile over the Pacific.What lies ahead in the coming months is expected to be a difficult engineering endeavor. Program managers recognize that they still have to overcome high hurdles, and indicate the shootdown attempt is likely going to occur in 2005, not late 2004. "It gets more and more challenging to hold to the 2004 date," notes ABL program director USAF Col. Ellen M. Pawlikowski.The shootdown attempt should go a long way toward addressing the main questions hanging over ABL: can adequate laser energy be generated to overcome atmospheric absorption, can the energy be focused on a small enough point to damage a missile, and will the software-intensive battle management system work? Even a successful test won't convince all critics, since the first test will be at relatively close range, intentionally designed to demonstrate system functionality rather than determine if the ABL can accomplish its mission in a stressful setting.
THERE'S MORE: In a separate story, the magazine notes that "the Air Force is exploring the use of lasers in other roles," as well. "For instance, service officials indicate there are efforts quietly ongoing to develop and test a laser weapon for use on F-16s."
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