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Obering Sees Rising Missile Threats, As Boeing Rolls Out Airborne Laser

By | October 30, 2006

      The United States faces increased threats from rogue states and terrorist groups attempting to obtain ballistic missiles, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) leader said Friday as The Boeing Co. [BA] rolled out its Airborne Laser (ABL) to block those missiles.

      Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering, the MDA director, repeatedly praised Boeing and its workers, citing “our combined pride at the extraordinary work all of you — military and civilian, government and contractor, workers and supporting family members — have performed to reach this milestone in national security.”

      He acknowledged that more work is needed to complete development of the ABL system.

      It involves a giant Boeing 747-400 with an enormous extended nose containing a device to steer a laser beam toward an enemy ballistic missile shortly after it rises from a launch pad or silo.

      Inside the aircraft is a chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL). Developed by Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC], the COIL is to generate a laser beam so strong that it can destroy the enemy ballistic missile, while also frying its electronics. Also, Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] is developing the beam control/fire control subsystem.

      The Boeing ABL is significant in that it can fire continuously at an enemy weapon until it is destroyed. Other ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems involve having a U.S. missile intercept and hit the enemy missile to kill it, which many have likened to having a bullet hit a bullet.

      Also, the Boeing ABL system attacks the enemy missile early in its flight, in the boost phase, before the enemy warhead has a chance to split into many parts (multiple independent reentry vehicles, or MIRV) or to eject confusing decoys.

      In contrast, some other BMD systems aim for the enemy missile in the midcourse of its trajectory, or in the final terminal phase of flight, after the enemy missile may have entered MIRV or decoy-deployment action.

      The challenge for ABL, however, is in getting a beam that shoots a sufficiently strong laser for a sufficiently long period, and also in getting around the distortions of the beam that can occur because of atmospheric conditions.

      Yet Boeing and Northrop have made great strides in ABL, Obering said.

      “You have overcome some formidable challenges to achieve this breakthrough, and it is appropriate now that we step back to ask a fundamental question – why have you been doing this?” Obering stated at the rollout ceremony at Wichita, Kans..

      And the answer to that, he said, is the growing threat facing the United States from those who would place weapons of mass destruction atop missiles to destroy American cities or other targets.

      The “‘why’ is pretty clear: 9/11 is still very fresh on our minds … non-state actors and terrorists have shown they wish to do us and our country great harm,” Obering said.

      While those with murderous intent toward the United States may not today possess the long-range missiles or advanced nuclear or other WMD to realize their goals, they will continue in their quest until they succeed, he said.

      He specifically cited North Korea, which launched missiles as Americans celebrated the July 4 holiday, and more recently announced it detonated a nuclear weapon underground. And Obering also singled out Iran, which has refused to halt its nuclear development program that leaders of some developed nations fear will lead to production of nuclear weapons.

      “They only seek improved means to hasten our destruction,” Obering warned. “The news from North Korea and Iran has been consistently bleak. Their denunciations of the United States have been vitriolic, and to the extent they have been able, they have pursued programs to develop, test, and arm ballistic missiles of increasingly long range with lethal payloads.”

      While Obering said he cited just two nations, more may line up to acquire weapons and delivery systems capable of horrific destruction.

      “There is also the issue of proliferation … either between individual states, or between states and their proxies, such as Hezbollah,” Obering noted. Hezbollah for weeks launched conventional-warhead missiles into Israel.

      Obering expressed concern that when one rogue state obtains or develops systems such as long-range missiles and/or nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, they may then sell some of those systems to others that could be used to attack the United States.

      “Sometimes these transactions are done for ideological reasons, as seems to be the case with Iran,” Obering said. “Sometimes they are purely for cash, as seems to be the case with North Korea. The end result, however, is the same … weapons of potentially great destruction in the wrong hands … hands that might be hard to see until the last moment.”

      This is why the United States must have a missile shield such as the ABL, he said, praising “the revolutionary technology you [Boeing and its contractor team mates] are developing that has the potential to change the nature of warfare.

      “You are developing a system that can interdict a threat missile in its boost phase, at a stage when every second counts … a system that the adversary cannot outrun,” Obering said.

      The Boeing ABL is “impressive in its size, complexity, and performance,” Obering said.

      “I have to marvel at how you can put a six-ton turret on the front of a jet … incorporate an incredibly complex system of optics and avionics … make more modifications to the hull of a 747 than have ever been made before … and still have it airworthy,” he said.

      Boeing and Northrop have made some real progress in the ABL program, Obering indicated.

      “You’ve passed some critical knowledge points … including demonstrating last year that the high-energy laser can produce enough power for enough time to make it operationally lethal.

      “Today, of course, we’re marking the rollout of the aircraft as it prepares to enter flight testing. You’ve accomplished a tremendous amount since the aircraft arrived here in August of last year. Now it’s time to begin active tracking flight tests against the Big Crow aircraft.”

      Obering urged the defense contractor workers onward, saying, “You’ve demonstrated capability on the ground. Let’s do it now in flight.”

      The general concluded with high praise for the ABL program and its workers, saying that “you are laying the groundwork for the twin goals of a more robust missile defense now … and a new field of directed energy systems for the future. Your professionalism and your accomplishments stand clearly before us. On behalf of your colleagues and teammates in the Missile Defense Agency and the Department of Defense, I thank you.”

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