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ABL System Making Advances; No Formal Decision On 747-800

By | October 2, 2006

      Progress has been achieved in several areas in developing the Airborne Laser (ABL) ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, according to a briefing held by The Boeing Co. [BA].

      The company is moving steadily ahead in creating a futuristic system that would use a powerful light beam to destroy enemy missiles, according to Greg Hyslop, vice president and program director for the Boeing ABL program. He spoke to defense journalists at a briefing during the Air Force Association Air & Space Conference at a large Washington hotel.

      Hyslop said the ABL system is making good progress in dealing with multiple issues.

      For example, Boeing is working on altering the aerodynamic shock wave that can distort the laser at higher 747 air speeds, he said.

      Also, weight issues are being dealt with. The ABL gear tips off at about 200,000 pounds, equivalent to the weight of two B-2 bombers, and it all must be packed inside a single 747, he noted. At this point, there are no weight issues remaining to be resolved, he said.

      The ABL program is working on advances in the beam control, and plans a passive flight with no illumination, or laser firing, and then a flight with illumination.

      On another point, Hyslop said Boeing hasn’t yet made a formal decision to switch from the 747-400 freighter aircraft as the platform for the ABL to a larger 747-800, but the bigger plane would confer many benefits.

      “There hasn’t been a formal decision yet” to switch to the larger plane, he said. But a larger 747 would provide benefits, compared to the smaller aircraft, according to Hyslop.

      For example, the 747-800 would permit more space for maintaining the laser system. Also, there could be more space for chemicals for the laser. A larger aircraft also could provide for more range for the enemy-missile-killer.

      “The new plane would have lots of advantages” versus the 400, he said.

      Boeing is making progress in perfecting the BMD system, along with teammate Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC], according to Hyslop.

      While Boeing supplies the plane and modifications, and handles integration issues, Northrop is designing and developing the Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL).

      The use of a laser is, in theory, superior to other BMD systems that rely on having a missile precisely guided to intercept and kill an incoming enemy missile at a specific point in space, with one chance to score a hit. With the laser, the light beam can fire continuously until it destroys the enemy missile as it rises from a launch pad or silo.

      Also, the laser, like some interceptor platforms, hits the enemy missile early in its flight, in the boost phase, before the warhead splits into multiple independent reentry vehicles.

      But first, some hurdles must be cleared.

      For example, atmospheric distortions such as moisture or dust can deflect the laser beam, making it difficult to hit the target missile. Also, handling the heat generated and other problems need to be solved.

      Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering, for example, warned that he wishes to see the entire ABL system now in development linked together into one smoothly operating system, and also cautioned that ABL must have a successful test in 2008 for the program to receive continued support. He spoke to journalists at a conference in Huntsville, Ala.

      Questions about the use of a laser system to down enemy ballistic missiles will disappear, and robust support for the ABL will build, once the system is shown to work, Hyslop predicted.

      “We have to demonstrate it will work first, and then I think support” for the airborne missile shield will flourish, he indicated.

      To help move the ABL system forward to success, Boeing has invested “several million dollars” out of its own pocket, Hyslop added. “We have invested some of our own funds,” he said.

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