The defense industrial base for one of the Pentagon’s most important missile defense programs is “thin” because there are so few companies involved in much of the highly technical optics work, according to senior Airborne Laser program officials. Much of the technology has no or few civilian applications.
For example, only one company, Xinetics Inc of Devens, Mass. makes the highly sensitive “deformable” optics used in the ABL laser, according to Mike Rinn, vice president and program director for ABL. Rinn spoke to me after a Friday presentation on the ABL sponsored by the Marshall Institute.
Air Force Col. Robert McMurry, the Missile Defense Agency’s program manager for ABL, told the gathering that the industrial base was “thin,” quickly backing off an initial description of it as “fragile.”
On top of the very short list of US companies making these mirrors, there are a “handful” of companies that specialize in the coatings for large optics and the number of people who know about these technologies is quite small and they are mostly older employees moving rapidly to retirement, Boeing’s Rinn said. His company is training people as “backup.”
Why does this industrial base matter, aside from the possibly self-serving interest Boeing has in urging that more ABLs be built to preserve the industrial base? (Bear in mind each operational ABL plane is likely to cost between $1 billion and $2 billion and four are required for effective operations in a theater.) Lasers are likely to be an integral part of the country’s military in the future, though they may be solid state lasers, unlike the ABL’s chemical laser. Deformable optics are likely to be critical in developing improved lasers.
McMurry also offered a schedule of upcoming program milestones. ABL should begin ground testing of the laser in the next “few months.” Probably the most significant event will be the full firing of the laser – integrated inside the highly modified 747 airplane – at a calorimeter, a device used to measure the intensity of a laser. If successful, that should lead to a firing of the laser while in flight possibly in August next year, McMurry said.