A program to develop a massive missile-killing laser housed in a 747 freighter celebrated another milestone last month with a successful test of its fire control and tracking system on a simulated target.
The Airborne Laser program - a joint venture between defense giants Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman - identified, tracked and fired a low-powered laser at a reflector attached to an NC-135E Big Crow research aircraft during tests that ended August 23, one of the final hurdles before a live-fire "lethal demonstration" is conducted in 2009.
"The program remains on track to complete a lethal demonstration in 2009 that will validate the unique contribution ABL can bring to an integrated ballistic missile defense system as a boost phase element," said Greg Hyslop, Boeing program manager for ABL during a Sept. 4 telephone interview. "We stand on the verge of fully demonstrating a revolutionary warfighting capability - the ability to defend ourselves and our friends and allies with light."
But while program officials are touting their latest test and previewing the big event to come in '09, the ABL program remains in budgetary limbo. Congressional defense authorizers slashed the 2008 ABL budget by about $250 million, a cut that would in effect delay the shoot-down test by two years.
One of the factors that surely weighs on lawmakers as they allocate funds for a wide range of defense projects - including billions for the expansion of the Army and Marine Corps, new Air Force fighters and Navy ships - is the ABL's strategic-level sticker price. At an estimated $1.5 billion per aircraft, a seven-plane squadron comes at a hefty price for a capability that many see as extremely controversial."We continue to inform Congress on the status of the program and how far we've come ... that the program has yet to have a technical challenge that we haven't been able to overcome," Hyslop said. "We need the president's budget request to stay on track."
The laser plane includes a "megawatt class" high-energy chemical laser designed to shoot down the kind of missiles fired from countries like North Korea or Iran. The laser targets the missile's fuel tank, taking advantage of pressure and velocity to "unzip" the rocket, rendering it powerless during its initial flight.
"The internal pressure and aerodynamic forces, once the wall is weakened, is what actually destroys the missile," Hyslop explained.
Officials say systems for handling the chemicals that are used to re-arm the laser have proven safe, helping encourage reluctant governments such as Japan make the case for potential basing of ABLs in their soil.
Though the Air Force is planning for a single squadron of ABL planes, program officials explained that a detailed concept of operations is still in the works. Hyslop said the ABL's powerful beam could be turned against a wide variety of targets, including ones on the ground.
"ABL could be used in that mode," Hyslop said. "We don't have the sensing capabilities to find a target on the ground, but if we were given target coordinates we could obviously fire the laser at a point on the ground."
"The ranges are a lot shorter because you have to go through more atmosphere," he added.
With the completion of the fire control test last month, program officials are ready to install the missile-killing, high-energy laser aboard the 747 test aircraft - a process akin to "building a ship in a bottle" - with eventual ground tests of the laser next fall.
By the beginning of 2009, program officials say they'll flight test the ABL, firing the laser at "instrumented targets," possibly including drones, with a final missile-kill test in August 2009.
"The issue of putting a beam on the target was always a huge risk in the program," admitted Art Napolitano, ABL program manager with Lockheed Martin. "This building block approach has allowed us to demonstrate to everybody that technically this is a very viable weapon."