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Political battles over the Airborne Laser

How easy is it to get a missile-zapping aircraft off the ground? It depends on how much Congress is willing to pay.

Remember the scene in Independence Day where the alien invaders blow up the White House with some sort of interstellar death ray? We Earthlings are still a long, long way from that sort of weaponry--just how far will depend, as so many things do, on budget battles in Washington.

Airborne Laser aircraft
The Airborne Laser aircraft at Andrews Air Force base on June 20, 2007. Air Force photo by Bobby Jones

The Pentagon's premier "directed energy" weapons system is a missile-zapping laser that could someday soon be tooling around in a modified 747, if all goes right for a program valued at $3.8 billion. This week, the Airborne Laser aircraft paid a visit to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland--well known, of course, as a commuter airport of sorts for the president--as the destination of what the Pentagon says was the plane's first-ever cross-country flight.

Washington area residents need not worry about a misfire. The plane isn't yet equipped with the "megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser beam" weapons system; that work is slated for sometime later this year. The Pentagon says the chemical laser has had 70 successful firings (on the ground, that is) over the past three years, and it is preparing for what it hopes will be the first takedown of a ballistic missile target in mid-2009. Eventually, the battle-ready chemical load would be sufficient to destroy an unspecified "many" missiles.

"We are going to put that big laser in the back...and then we're ready to shoot a missile down," Air Force Col. John Daniels, program director, said in a statement. "The biggest challenge we have right now is integration. The optics system is working. The battle management system works well. We even tracked an (intercontinental ballistic missile) with the sensors on the airplane."

Daniels continued: "When you put those big pieces together, and you get the software talking to each other and the systems, that's not trivial. It's really an integration challenge."

The political challenge, meanwhile, is to keep the funding alive. Reuters reported Thursday that preliminary votes in Congress have slashed between $200 million and $250 million from the program's $549 million portion of the proposed defense budget for fiscal 2008. Cuts on that level, Reuters said, would set the program back three years.

Daniels told reporters that the current level of budget cuts would delay the shootdown attempt by at least two years, according to Reuters.

Whatever happens in Congress, it's a long road ahead for the Airborne Laser as a truly battle-ready system. From this one plane so far, the Air Force aims to build a "production representative" model. The eventual goal is for the Air Force to have seven laser-equipped aircraft, all based in the U.S., that would cost about $1.5 billion apiece.

From Andrews Air Force Base, the Airborne Laser prototype plane was set to fly back to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., where flight tests are set to wrap up this summer. The program is based at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico and is managed by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.