On August 10, Boeing and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency were finally able to demonstrate that the US$1.1 billion Airborne Laser (ABL) program actually works. The ABL aircraft, a modified Boeing 747-400, took off from Edwards Air Force Base and located, tracked and fired on a target missile. Although a surrogate high-energy laser was used – rather than the megawatt-class laser that will ultimately arm it – instrumentation on the target verified the hit.
As Boeing’s ABL program director, Michael Rinn, noted, “"Pointing and focusing a laser beam on a target that is rocketing skyward at thousands of miles per hour is no easy task.” But the multi-stage system proved more than capable of the job.
The test demonstrated how each part of the engagement sequence works together in knocking missiles out of the sky.
First, infrared sensors located the missile, which had been launched from San Nicolas Island, California. Then the battle management system deployed a pair of solid-state illuminator lasers to acquire the target, track it and provide detailed information on atmospheric conditions. Finally, the high-energy laser was fired to simulate a missile intercept. Instruments on the missile confirmed the success of the mission.
The Airborne Laser program has been developed to provide speed-of-light capability to destroy hostile ballistic missiles, but delays and cost over-runs have led to questions about its viability. In April, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recommended canceling the second ABL aircraft, saying, "The ABL program has significant affordability and technology problems and the program’s proposed operational role is highly questionable."
Nonetheless, the ABL team are now pressing on with tests of the actual high-energy laser, culminating – they hope – with its use in an intercept test before the end of the year.
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