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Airborne Laser BMD System Aces Beam Control/Fire Control Test

By | September 10, 2007

      The Airborne Laser (ABL) ballistic missile defense (BMD) system scored well in a test of its beam control/fire control system, according to the Missile Defense Agency and contractors involved.

      That system aims a high-powered laser to destroy an enemy missile shortly after it rises from a launch pad or silo.

      This latest ABL test win is but one of a series during recent years, in which the ABL system has shown steady progress in its development schedule.

      As part of forming a larger shield against enemy ballistic missiles to protect the United States, its allies and interests, the ABL program is led by The Boeing Co. [BA], which also contributed a heavily-modified Boeing 747-400F aircraft. Inside the plane will be a high-powered laser contributed by Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC], and a beam control/fire control system by Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT].

      The ABL system aims the laser by turning and tilting an optical system in the nose of the 747, to take out enemy ballistic missiles.

      Boeing said the successful test is but one more proof that the ABL program is proceeding well toward the day when it can complete the full series of steps required to support a ballistic missile intercept.

      During these "low power" tests, the 747 operated from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., using its infrared sensors to find an instrumented target board located on an Air Force NC-135E Big Crow test aircraft.

      The ABL battle management system, developed by Boeing, then issued engagement and target location instructions to the Lockheed Martin-designed beam control/fire control system.

      The beam control/fire control system acquired the target and fired its two solid-state illuminator lasers to track the target and measure atmospheric conditions. Since the high-energy laser is not yet installed on the aircraft, ABL fired a low-power surrogate laser at the Big Crow, simulating a target engagement.

      "The completion of low-power system flight tests is a key milestone for the Airborne Laser team," said Pat Shanahan, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems. "These tests demonstrate that ABL can fully engage a threat missile with its battle management and beam control/fire control 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-energy laser in the aircraft, it will conduct an extensive series of system-level ground and flight tests, leading to an intercept test against an in-flight ballistic missile in 2009, unless proposed budget cuts in Congress disrupt and delay the ABL program. (Please see separate story in this issue.)

      The high-powered chemical laser already has completed rigorous ground testing at Edwards.

      Lockheed noted that the successful test results verify the ability to maintain the focus of the laser beam while continuously tracking a target.

      "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 at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. "This important accomplishment is a testament to the government-industry partnership on ABL and brings this revolutionary capability one step closer to reality."

      In test flights this year aboard the ABL aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Lockheed noted, the ABL beam control/fire control accomplishments have included the following:

      • The first open-air lasing in flight occurred with the successful firing of the track illuminator laser. The track illuminator laser, developed by Raytheon Co. [RTN], fired multiple times to engage a simulated target on a Big Crow 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, as part of the beam control/fire control system.
      • 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 illuminated the simulated target to measure atmospheric distortion, and a deformable mirror made compensating corrections to the surrogate high energy laser to maintain maximum energy on target.
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