abl_refuel.jpgA few days ago, we found out that the Airborne Laser -- that's the modified 747, designed to zap incoming missiles -- successfully tested its ray gun for the first time. Well, it seems that good fortune comes with a price. Because the Missile Defense Agency has just added $1.47 billion to the program," the jet's program manager tells Inside Missile Defense.That means the price of the project just doubled, instantly. And there could be more to come. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) officials are only about "80 percent" sure that this new windfall will cover the cost of the Airborne Laser (ABL) tests they want to run.Originally, the ABL was supposed to be blasting by 2002. Now, the MDA isn't committing to a timetable. But they do have three goals in mind: keep testing the 747's laser, finish the plane's "battle management system," and shore up the ABL's "beam control system, which is really critical to our ability to be able to point and track the high-energy laser."

While the laser is being tested on the ground, the aircraft will begin a series of flight tests -- fewer than 20 in total -- carrying the beam control and the battle management system. Initially, with the beam control system we will just test what we call the passive pieces, which is without the two solid state lasers we use to track the missile, ABL Program Manager Air Force Col. Ellen Pawlikowski said. We will check that out, we will do some tests to make sure we get good handoff between battle management and beam control. Then we will bring the plane back down for a short period and we will put two illuminating lasers on [the aircraft] in the second half of 2005.When the laser finishes all of its ground tests, program officials will move it out of the systems integration lab and begin putting it on the ABL aircraft, Pawlikowski said. We will do that as the next step after we finish the flight tests and the ground tests and then we will have our final test period when we test the complete system first against target boards and then against a boosting missile.Program officials will take a measured approach as they finish each major phase, such as the completion of the first light test, according to Pawlikowski. We will do two things when we reach a major milestone, she said. We will look at what our schedule is and what does the budget look like for the rest of that path. I am not going to tell you today that we are going to complete such-and-such by 2006 because I am going to look at that in January, when we finish these two milestones, and then I am going to look at it again. And we are going to take it one step at a time."
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