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Airborne Laser Clears Hurdles, Set For Installing High-Powered Unit

By | January 7, 2008

      Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser To Go Into Boeing 747 Aircraft

      The Airborne Laser (ABL) easily cleared each of its scheduled hurdles last year and now is poised for installation of the high-energy chemical oxygen iodine laser in the ABL platform, a heavily modified giant Boeing 747-400F aircraft, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announced.

      ABL passed its final challenge, called a knowledge point completion, last year, MDA announced.

      That advancement "culminates a year of historic progress for the ABL program, and marks the end of a complex and diverse set of hardware refurbishment and planning in preparation for installation of ABL’s megawatt-class high energy laser," the agency stated.

      The solid progress in the ABL program closed out a year in which some lawmakers in Congress attempted to strangle the program. One proposal that a House panel adopted would have cut out nearly three-fourths of the $549 billion ABL funding that President Bush requested.

      Ultimately, ABL backers in Congress triumphed, with the program receiving $515 million in the current fiscal 2008 ending Sept. 30.

      If the ABL program had stumbled badly last year, that outcome might have been very different.

      But the program did well, led by prime contractor The Boeing Co. [BA], with Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] providing the high-energy laser and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] providing the beam control/fire control system to aim the laser at an enemy missile.

      While many other U.S. missile defense programs have systems that attempt to defeat an enemy missile later in its flight, in the midcourse or final (terminal) phases of its trajectory, ABL aims to annihilate an enemy missile early in its flight (the boost phase), shortly after it is launched.

      That is when an enemy missile is most vulnerable, before it has the opportunity to emit confusing chaff, multiple warheads or confusing decoys.

      Also, those other ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems attempt to defeat an enemy missile by using an American missile to hit it, which some have likened to having a bullet hit a bullet. There is only one chance, one point in space and time, when the hit can succeed.

      In contrast, the ABL has a high-powered laser on board a heavily modified Boeing 747 aircraft, and the laser beam can fire continuously at the enemy missile, incinerating it and frying its electronics.

      In announcing the 2007 ABL winning performance, MDA noted that the knowledge-points completion clears the way for installation of the high-energy COIL laser on the 747 aircraft, which then will lead to the highly important test of the entire ABL system in shooting down a target missile in 2009.

      Initial laser integration work began last summer after completion of a flight test program that demonstrated ABL’s ability to detect, track, target and engage non-cooperative airborne targets, MDA observed. This latest milestone verifies all high energy laser components have been readied for installation, and key chemical support systems have been put in place in preparation for on-aircraft integration and laser testing this year.

      ABL will become the first directed energy weapon to destroy a ballistic missile in flight, in that test in late 2009.

      The culminating win for ABL last year came when the Northrop Grumman laser team completed inspection and refurbishment of the high-energy laser components that were previously tested successfully in a system integration laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

      The team completed all technical drawings for laser installation on the aircraft, incorporating improvements learned during the lab tests. Early release of the drawings and installation plans allows Boeing and Northrop Grumman technicians to assemble and test the high-energy chemical laser in one-third the time originally required, according to Boeing.

      Modifications to the ABL hangar at Edwards were completed that will allow ground tests of the high-energy laser to occur aboard the ABL aircraft.

      Earlier last year, ABL completed a series of flight tests of the Lockheed Martin-developed beam control/fire control system at Edwards. In the tests, ABL tracked an airborne target, measured and compensated for atmospheric turbulence and fired a surrogate high-energy laser at the target.

      The team is now installing the high-energy laser in the aircraft at Edwards.

      Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems, said ABL, when completed, will mean "ushering in a new age of directed energy weapons."

      ABL will provide speed-of-light capability to destroy all classes of ballistic missiles in their boost phase of flight. Because a laser is a beam of light, it can reach a target missile much faster than an interceptor missile.

      Boeing noted that the speed, precision and lethality in ABL also have potential for other missions, including destroying air-to-air, cruise and surface-to-air missiles.

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