"I have to say that it is the ugliest aircraft I have ever seen."That's what Missile Defense Agency director Lieutenant General Trey Obering said when he laid eyes on the Airborne Laser at a rollout ceremony in October.I'm not one of those guys that swoons in front of aircraft. But I were, I guess I'd agree, with the modified 747's turrets and antennae and protrusions. But the Airborne Laser isn't mean to win beauty contests. It's being to blast ballistic missiles -- using a chemically-powered, megawatt-class laser -- as they're first climbing into the sky. That's when missiles are slowest and most vulnerable.This is called boost-phase intercept. Mid-course intercept is up to the Navy's SM-3 missile and the Ground-Based Interceptors based in California and Alaska. Terminal interception -- right before the suckers hit -- is left to Army Patriot missiles, Navy SM-2s and the Army's forthcoming Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense missile, or THAAD. It takes defenses in all three phases to make a fully-functioning missile shield.The boost-phase intercept is the hardest. There's just a short window before a missile accelerates, noses over, deploys decoys and gets a lot harder to kill. Some folks in the military think the job is so difficult, we shouldn't even bother, going with "pre-boost phase" defense instead -- blowing up the missiles before they ever get off the launching pad, with lightning-quick attacks. But with three Airborne Laser jets, you could maintain a 24-hour orbit near a launch area and zap the missiles mere seconds after launch. Theoretically.Problem is, the 747's chemical laser and delicate sensors don't quite work yet, despite about a zillion tests, and planning going back the Reagan Administration. The first was supposed to enter service in 2002, then 2005. Now, the target date has been pushed back at least until 2009, and further production is on hold. Obering says he hasn't lost hope -- yet. "Airborne Laser, if it pans out, is very capable," he said at the Surface Navy Symposium, held yesterday in Crystal City near Washington, D.C. "[It is] our primary boost-phase program -- but it's a high-risk program. If it doesn't pan out, we [still] need a boost-phase capability."So Obering has a back-up... sorta. It's called the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, a fancy name for a "hit-to-kill" (no explosion) long-range missile. Obering figures it will launch from ground silos or from the Navy's projected CG(X) missile cruiser. The general prefers the latter. "I'm a big believer in a more mobile capability. An increased emphasis on seabasing ... is important."But the Kinetic Energy Interceptor exists mostly on paper, and couldn't be operational before 2014. So too the CG(X), which is still in the study phase. It's supposed to be based on the $2-billion DDG-1000, itself clinging to life after a series of cutbacks. A theoretical missile on a theoretical cruiser is hardly a confidence-inspiring alternative to the finicky flying chemical bomb that is the Airborne Laser.But nobody's got a better idea.UPDATE 12:10 PM: "Besides the [Airborne Laser's] technical difficulties, of which there are many, I don't think that MDA [the Missile Defense Agency] has even begun to address how one could realistically try to use ABL in an operational setting," adds missile defense analyst Victoria Samson.
One justification for the ABL is that it's better than other types of interceptors because it can continually shoot at a target until the threat is gone - unlike others, which would have to shoot-look-shoot. However, that doesn't take into consideration the logistics of how one would continually shoot the ABL. That's a heavy requirement of your chemicals. How much do you need for one shot? For two? For five minutes' worth? And how would the aircraft fly with that type of dangerous load on-board?