September 5, 2007 Successful testing of an aircraft mounted laser weapon system has been carried out by the US missile defense agency and industry partnership team at Edwards Air Force base in California. The Airborne Laser (ABL) team has demonstrated the ability to point and focus the Lockheed Martin developed Beam control/Fire control system on an airborne target. This significant milestone verifies the ability to maintain the focus of the laser beam while continuously tracking a target. The system, which is mounted aboard a Boeing 747-400F aircraft, will be capable of destroying a ballistic missile carrying chemical, biological and nuclear warheads almost immediately after launch, whilst it is still accelerating in the earth's atmosphere and before it can deploy warheads.
The $1.1 Billion ABL project, which was contracted by the US government in 1996 to three private companies, is directed at testing airborne laser battle management and beam control/fire control systems, in order to destroy airborne missiles before they could pose a threat to civilian populations and military assets.
The ABL industry partnership comprises of Boeing, which provides the modified aircraft and the Battle Management System, Northrop Grumman, which supplies the High Energy Laser and the Beacon Illuminator Laser and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which provides the Beam Control/Fire Control System, including the nose-mounted turret.
The recent tests were successful in directing the beam generated by a surrogate High Energy Laser at a missile-shaped target on the side of an air force KC-135 Big Crow aircraft. To enable the surrogate beam to focus on the simulated target, the system first located and tracked the target, determined range to the target and then compensated for atmospheric turbulence. "The key functions of the Beam Control/Fire Control system now have been verified in the rigorous environment of flight," said Art Napolitano, ABL program director for Lockheed Martin Space Systems. These in flight tests are quickly proving that ABL’s battle management and beam control/fire control systems can complete the full series of steps required to support a ballistic missile intercept during its vulnerable boost faze.
The test flights aboard ABL aircraft accomplished the following:
• The first open-air lasing in flight occurred with the successful firing of the Track Illuminator Laser. The Raytheon-developed Track Illuminator Laser fired multiple times to engage a simulated target on a U.S. Air Force NC-135E "Big Crow" test aircraft and calculated the range to the target.
• The first in-flight firing of the Beacon Illuminator Laser in conjunction with the Track Illuminator Laser demonstrated the ability of the Northrop Grumman-developed Beacon Illuminator Laser to provide the signal used to measure atmospheric turbulence.
• The first in-flight engagement sequence involved firing both illuminator lasers and controlling a surrogate High Energy Laser in a simulated target engagement. The Beacon Illuminator was used to illuminate the target to measure atmospheric distortion, and a deformable mirror made compensating corrections to the surrogate High Energy Laser to maintain maximum energy on target.
"These tests demonstrate that ABL can fully engage a threat missile”, said Pat Shanahan, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems. “We are now ready to install the high-energy laser in the aircraft to prepare for the first intercept test against an in-flight ballistic missile." After the program installs the Northrop Grumman-built high-power chemical laser in the aircraft, it will conduct a series of system-level ground and flight tests, leading to an intercept test on a ballistic missile in 2009.
In future, ABL technology may also have the potential to destroy air-to-air, cruise and surface-to-air missiles, making it possible to neutralize an enemy missile before it can cause any harm.