Airborne Laser passes target test

The Pentagon's longtime work in progress fires its low-power systems successfully, Boeing says. But don't hold your breath waiting for the fully weaponized plane.

This is how the Pentagon envisions the Airborne Laser in action.
U.S. Missile Defense Agency

The Airborne Laser has taken another step forward in its long slog off the drawing board and into the Pentagon's arsenal.

The first-of-its-kind 747-400F this month completed a series of low-power test flights, using onboard infrared sensors to locate "an instrumented target board" on an Air Force NC-135E aircraft. Once the Airborne Laser(ABL) found the target, two solid-state illuminator lasers tracked the target and assessed atmospheric conditions--the later function being key to plotting a path to the target for the weapons laser. Since the high-energy COIL (chemical oxygen iodine laser) weapons system has yet to be installed, a low-power surrogate laser fired at the NC-135E.

The accomplishment, lead contractor Boeing said Friday, is proof positive that the ABL's battle management and beam control/fire control systems can support the plane's ultimate mission: intercepting a ballistic missile and destroying it in flight.

If all goes according to plan, and that's a big if, the ABL with a fully installed and tested high-energy laser will go up against a soaring ballistic missile in a test in 2009.

Many of the ifs are technical, but there are political considerations as well. The ABL program has been an expensive undertaking over the years, dating back to the mid-1990s. According to a report issued this summer by the Congressional Research Service, about $4.3 billion has been spent on the program so far (with $630 million allocated in the current fiscal year), but both the House and the Senate seem set to give the Bush Administration substantially less than it's asking for the upcoming fiscal year.

In time, the government is looking to field as many as seven ABL aircraft.

For the Airborne Laser, Boeing is working with fellow defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which is building the high-energy laser. But when it comes to truck-mounted laser weapons, the two companies are competing.