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Boeing's Airborne Laser still up in the air

The Secretary of Defense sees an operational role for the ABL as "highly questionable," but research continues into the missile-zapping system from on high.

Airborne Laser
Is the Airborne Laser program headed off into the sunset? There's just the one YAL-1A aircraft seen here, and plans for a second are being scrapped. USAF photo by Jim Shryne

Don't count out the Airborne Laser just yet. Just don't count on it as part of the U.S. missile defense system anytime soon, or in any significant role.

Boeing on Friday said that along with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, it has begun flight tests with the entire chemical laser weapon system--the high-energy laser itself, along with the beam control/fire control apparatus--integrated aboard the ABL aircraft, a modified 747-400F.

The plane completed a functional check flight Tuesday and is on track for further aerial tests, including a missile-intercept demonstration later in 2009, according to the defense contractor.

The Airborne Laser program is intended to create a high-flying weapons platform that could hit ballistic missiles in their launch phase, when they're moving relatively slowly and predictably, and have yet to deploy any countermeasures. The laser would burn a hole into the side of the missile, likely causing it to rupture.

But the long-running effort hasn't been nearly productive enough for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Earlier this month, when Gates laid out his Pentagon budget proposal, he cast doubt on when, or even whether, the ABL program could deliver:

We will cancel the second Airborne Laser Prototype Aircraft. We'll keep the existing aircraft and shift the program to an R&D effort. The ABL program has significant affordability and technology problems, and the program's proposed operational role is highly questionable.

At one point, the Pentagon had been hoping to build as many as seven ABL aircraft, in a program that has cost on the order of about $5 billion so far.

That's not to say that the Pentagon is opposed to laser weapons, per se. It has a number of related programs in the works, though the emphasis nowadays is going toward solid-state lasers, which should be cheaper to produce and easier to handle than their chemical-based counterparts.

At the April 6 press conference, Gates was followed by Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who elaborated on the issues:

The key attribute of ABL is that it's directed energy. And so if it's in the right place at the right time, it has the capability of catching an...ICBM in the boost phase. OK. But it is kind of at the rudimentary level of our understanding of directed energy....

It is what we have today. It needs to go further. We need on weight and power and cost, and work off the risks of that technology. It was our judgment that this technology needs to continue in the R&D phase, but it is not ready for production.