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Airborne laser succeeds in first lethal intercept experiment


February 15, 2010

The Airborne laser has succeeded in its first lethal intercept experiment

The Airborne laser has succeeded in its first lethal intercept experiment

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Laser guns have been a staple of science fiction for decades, but in reality their use is generally restricted to sighting, ranging and targeting applications. But that is all set to change. For the first time an airborne laser (ABL) weapon mounted aboard a modified Boeing 747 has shot down a ballistic missile launched from an at-sea mobile launch platform off the central California coast.

The February 11 test was the first directed energy lethal intercept demonstration against a liquid-fuel boosting ballistic missile target from an airborne platform. It serves as a proof-of-concept demonstration for directed energy technology for the Missile Defense Agency. The test comes less than a year after a similar test that located, tracked and fired on a target missile. In that test a surrogate high-energy laser was used. That surrogate has now been replaced by a megawatt-class high-energy laser.

The latest test involved launching a short-range threat-representative ballistic missile from an at-sea mobile launch platform. Within seconds, the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) used onboard sensors to detect the boosting missile and used a low-energy laser to track the target. The ALTB then fired a second low-energy laser to measure and compensate for atmospheric disturbance. Finally, the ALTB fired its megawatt-class High Energy Laser, heating the boosting ballistic missile to critical structural failure. The entire engagement occurred within two minutes of the target missile launch, while its rocket motors were still thrusting.

Less than one hour later, a second solid fuel short-range missile was launched from a ground location on San Nicolas Island, Calif. and the ALTB successfully engaged the boosting target with its High Energy Laser, met all its test criteria, and terminated lasing prior to destroying the second target. The ALTB destroyed a solid fuel missile, identical to the second target, in flight on February 3, 2010.

The use of directed energy is very attractive for missile defense, with the potential to attack multiple targets at the speed of light, at a range of hundreds of kilometers, and at a low cost per intercept attempt compared to current technologies. It also means the strength of the laser can be altered to suit the circumstances.

However, even with the success of the demonstration, questions still remain as to the real-world worth of the system. The one to five minute period just after launch is the easiest time to track a missile because its exhaust is burning bright and hot. This means the intercepting laser must be in close proximity, as was the case with the successful test. Shooting down a long-range missile after that window is closed is going to be a much more difficult (and useful) feat. But we’re sure the Missile Defense Agency is working on it.

The high-energy laser was designed and built by Northrop Grumman Corp, while Lockheed Martin Corp supplied the beam- and fire-control systems and Boeing provided the aircraft, the battle management system and overall systems integration and testing.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

I would be surprised if the beam had sufficient energy at a range of hundreds of kilometers, and to actually hit a vital spot on the missile within a few inches so hard to believe. As far detecting missiles, this is not just done by detecting the exhaust(infra-red). Radar must play a part.


do some research on the optical systems used - mind bending stuff!

Facebook User

IR (heat) signatures of launched missiles can be detected from space. Unfortunately, it\'s way too expensive to keep a bunch of megawatt lasers in orbit. So once you\'ve detected the rising missiles, you can\'t shoot them down.


Missiles are actually rather fragile. The entire thing is a \'weak spot\'. Damage any part of it and the whole thing goes to pieces due to the high speed the missile is moving through the air.

Skeptics have been claiming for years that the Patriot missiles used in the first gulf war \"never hit anything\" and were a \"complete failure\".

The Patriot missile was developed from a proximity attack anti-aircraft missile. It\'s designed to explode close to its target, hitting it with shrapnel and either causing enough system damage it can\'t fly or disrupting its structure to the point it fails and breaks apart. It\'s essentially rocket boosted, RADAR guided \'ack-ack\'. Instead of carpeting the sky with shrapnel, hoping the enemy flies into it or getting a random hit, Patriot goes for a \'direct deposit\' where the enemy plane or missile cannot avoid it.

The SCUD ballistic missile series are very fragile, they\'re flying fuel tanks, similar to the American Atlas series. It only takes a small bit of damage to make them crumple like an empty soda can.

The Patriot missiles knocked down every SCUD they were launched against. Only one SCUD hit its target (an American military barracks in Saudi Arabia), that was due to confusion over which Patriot battery had fire priority. After that incident the engagement rules were changed so that ALL Patriot batteries that got a radar lock on a SCUD were to fire, no arguing. In Gulf War Part Deux, the Patriots benefited from a decade more development.

Yet still the skeptics holler \"The Patriot missile never HIT any SCUD!\". Amazing there\'s so many people in the world who will believe any wild and crazy thing, as long as it\'s not the truth.

Facebook User

What would happen in they put little bits of mirror on the out side of the missile, would the light bounce off it?

Nick Rowney

This article is three years old. Has the technology been sufficiently tweaked for practical applications. North Korea is rumbling about making a pre-emptive nuclear strike on us. Can we get (or do we have ) air-based laser in the air in time to pre-empt their attack?

Roger McMillian
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