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Airborne Laser Aircraft Rolls Out

A. Vinod Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 06, 2006

    "Not since that time nearly 2000 years ago, when Archimedes reflected the sun's rays to set the Roman fleet on fire, has the world seen a weapon that puts fresh meaning into the phrase 'in real time'. Let's do it now in flight," thus Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, the Director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), exhorted a crowd of missile defense engineers at a function in Wichita, Kansas last week. The event was the roll-out of a redesigned Boeing 747 aircraft that would integrate a revolutionary technology yet to be witnessed by modern age - an airborne laser weapon interdicting and zapping missiles in mid-air.

    When the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or the Star Wars programme of the early 1980s fantasized the idea of space-based laser weapons shooting down enemy missiles, it was taunted by critics as the best of science fiction. The MDA and its technology contractors are now working overtime to prove them wrong and give life to a technology which would in all likelihood be the most distinct product of the current revolution in military affairs. After the demise of the SDI and its partial regeneration through the National Missile Defense (NMD) programme, the high-energy laser weapon project had gained new life in the form of the Airborne Laser (ABL) programme, which would be another major component of NMD.

    The primary goal of the project was to create a weapon system consisting of a high-energy, chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) mounted on a modified Boeing 747 aircraft to shoot down ballistic missiles in their boost phase. A four-member crew in the aircraft would operate the airborne laser in pairs at high altitudes of around 40,000 feet, by flying in orbits over friendly territory and scanning the horizon for the plumes of rising missiles. With its precision-targeting and quick-reaction objectives, the ABL system would be designed for autonomous operations, which would include the capabilities to acquire and track missiles in the boost phase of flight and destroy them.

    An Airborne Laser mission begins when one or more of its six infrared sensors detect the heat from the plume of a hostile launched missile. One laser locks onto the missile to provide preliminary tracking data. The aircraft's onboard computer system measures the distance and calculates its course and direction. The second laser illuminates the missile, determines the aim-point of the target, while the third laser measures the atmospheric disturbance between the aircraft and the missile so that computers and deformable mirrors can compensate for the amount of refraction the laser beam will encounter on its way to the target. Finally, the Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser fires along a computer-determined path, concentrating sufficient energy on the missile's metal skin to destroy the boosting missile over its launch area. Boeing, as the prime contractor for ABL, would provide the modified aircraft and battle management system, and function as overall systems integrator. Other ABL partners are Northrop Grumman, which supplies the high-energy laser and the beacon illuminator laser, and Lockheed Martin, which provides the nose-mounted turret in addition to the beam control/fire control system.

    Since the 1980's when the US first toyed with this technology and after the 1996 rebirth of the project, developing that big idea of using lasers from a flying platform to destroy missiles in the boost stage seemed a near-impossible task. Keeping the Airborne Laser's weight down was a persistent challenge throughout, especially when over 1,200 gallons of chemicals were needed to fire the laser. The other challenges were to ensure the desired effective range of the laser and also successfully integrate the system within an aircraft. On the other hand, the ABL project, which started with development costs of $2.5 billion and intended fielding in 2006 had to consistently revise its estimates. As a result, in February 2006, the programme was relegated by the Pentagon to a technology demonstrator status, and the ABL team was asked to solely focus on a flight test to shoot down a target missile. Earlier, the project had barely scraped through a cancellation threat in 2004 after the Pentagon decided to lay down several interim test milestones for the programme, which included a flight-test of the aircraft fitted with battle-management and fire-control systems, and a brief firing of the chemical laser on the ground. At a critical Block 2004 test, a team led by Boeing successfully fired for the first time a laser dubbed as the 'First Light' in November 2004. Though the firing lasted only a fraction of a second, it gave the project an important boost amid calls for cancellation.

    The ABL project is currently moving forward in two-year development "blocks." In July 2002, the prototype 747, known as YAL-1A, made its first test flight. Since 2004, the agency has undertaken many developmental tests to prove the power and firing duration of the Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL), which could sufficiently destroy a boosting missile from hundreds of miles away. Also, in the past two years, it had completed flight testing of the Battle Management Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence system; the sensor system; and major components of the optical system. The tasks for Block 2006 were to deploy the ABL aircraft and prove the laser system's efficacy. Prior to the 2004 tests, 'knowledge points' were laid out to measure the programme's progress. With a budget of over $471.6 million, the knowledge points laid out for 2006 included testing of solid-state lasers for missile tracking and atmospheric-distortion correction. The ground-based tests were conducted in June 2006 when "surrogate" lasers were successfully fired from the interior of modified Boeing 747 on to an NKC-135 aircraft with a picture of a ballistic missile painted on its fuselage at a Boeing facility in Wichita. Though these tests proved the laser system was sound, more ground-based tests and laser hardware integration with the aircraft might happen in 2007 for which MDA has already requested $631 million.

    With the success of recent tests and rollout of the redesigned Boeing 747 400F aircraft on October 27, the decks are now cleared for a steady development plan and the crucial flight-testing in 2008. However, even though the MDA has demonstrated the laser technology on the ground, the primary challenge would be to prove the capability of the laser system to shoot down a boosting missile during flight. While an airborne aircraft firing a high-power chemical oxide laser along with other beams would be a challenging endeavour, there are also concerns on whether adequate laser energy can be generated to overcome atmospheric absorption and then focus on a small point to damage a missile. Already, the project has faced a 'jitter' problem typical to Boeing 747s. And this becomes a serious issue since even small vibrations can have detrimental effects on laser weapons, which must focus a high-powered beam of light on a rapidly moving target and maintain the beam's intensity. For this reason, the stabilization of the laser is essential, and the programme cannot move forward until the ABL team perfects its Lockheed Martin-designed beam/fire control system, which is designed to compensate for 'jitter.'

    For that matter, even a successful test in 2008 might not convince critics, since that test will be at relatively close range and intentionally designed to demonstrate system functionality rather than to determine its capability in a stressful setting. Also critics have cited the inadequacies in tackling counter-measures as a major technical hurdle for the project. The ABL has been positioned as a competitor to the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), another boost-phase missile defense system slated for flight test in 2008. With the MDA officials indicating that only one of these programmes might eventually survive, the 2008 demonstration would be heavily critical for the future of the ABL programme. Like other BMD programmes including the Ground-Based Mid-Course Defence System (GMDS), the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the KEI, the ABL project has also heavily overshot its intended budget and has incurred about $1 billion in cost overruns and is estimated to cost another billion before the system is ready for final testing.

    Though the MDA was planning to design a second ABL aircraft in 2007, as part of the five ABL aircraft package, it had to defer that until the 2008 test. If the 2008 demonstration is successful, it might be followed by tests to shoot down longer-range missiles. However, at stake now is the future of not just the ABL project, but also the whole BMD programme, which had seen repeated failures and tremendous cost outruns. On September 15, a ground-interception test for the THAAD system was aborted after malfunctions in the target missile. However, an earlier test of the GMD system on September 1 gave hope after an interceptor launched from the Vandenberg Base hit a target launched from Alaska. This was the first successful test after a series of failures on the GMDS since October 2002. Amid this sullied record, the rollout of the ABL aircraft was a shot-in-the-arm for the MDA, which has faced all-round criticism from Congressmen, analysts and academics who question the feasibility of missile defences and the billions going down with failed systems.