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Airborne Laser Contractors Say Funding Cuts Would Cripple Or Kill Program

By | May 14, 2007

      Massive cuts to the Airborne Laser (ABL) ballistic missile defense (BMD) program would cripple or eliminate the ABL program, its three contractors said in a joint statement.

      The companies, along with the Missile Defense Agency, will attempt to overturn the huge cuts to the $549 million that President Bush requested for ABL in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008.

      A $400 million cut was included in draft legislation written and approved by the House Armed Forces Committee (HASC) strategic forces subcommittee. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, May 7, 2007, page 1.) In other words, the $549 million requested was whacked down to $149 million.

      Then the full HASC moderated that, but still provided only $299 million, more than 45 percent short of the request. (Please see full story in this issue.)

      Unlike other BMD programs, ABL would use a high-powered continuous laser beam to destroy any enemy ballistic missile just after it is launched, in the boost phase, before it has time to spew forth multiple warheads or confusing chaff.

      The program has gained heightened urgency since North Korea fired test missiles last summer and detonated a nuclear warhead in October, and since Iran persisted in developing nuclear materials and test-fired an array of missiles, including one from a submerged submarine.

      “Given the importance of the boost phase mission and the proximity of demonstrating ABL’s capabilities, it would be imprudent to cripple or terminate this program just when we are on the cusp of demonstrating ABL’s capability,” said Greg Hyslop, The Boeing Co. Airborne Laser vice president and program director.

      He read the joint statement on behalf of Boeing and the other leading contractors. Hyslop was joined by Guy Renard, Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] ABL program manager, and Art Napolitano, Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] ABL program director.

      They spoke to defense journalists on a teleconference.

      ABL has come a long way, the three stated, with many technical difficulties overcome, and it would be puzzling after all that to cancel the program.

      “The program remains on track to complete a lethal demonstration in 2009 that will validate the unique contribution ABL can bring to an integrated ballistic missile defense system … as a boost phase element,” Hyslop said in the statement.

      “The laser system fired effectively at full power and full duration during ground testing in 2005. In 2007, low-power flight tests for the beam control/fire control system will be complete and the high power laser integration inside the aircraft will begin. In 2008, we will begin high-power system testing that will culminate in an early 2009 lethal demonstration.”

      He asked why, given years of support for the program, it would be shredded financially now.

      “We stand on the verge of fully demonstrating a revolutionary warfighting capability. ABL technical risk has been substantially reduced as a result of previous investments by both Democratic and Republican Administrations and Congressional guidance,” Hyslop noted.

      On other points, the briefers said:

      • The cost of funding a slip in testing from 2008 to 2009 when ABL will shoot down a target ballistic missile will be just $200 million, a cost that will be swallowed in the overall Missile Defense Agency budget. The price would go from about $3.6 billion over more than a decade to $3.8 billion.

      • ABL could do more than shoot down ballistic missiles in their boost phase, with other missions possible such as anti-air or anti-cruise-missile duties.

      • The program will need to buy other aircraft for the killer-laser program to follow on to the 747-400 test bed aircraft platform, and there is great interest in the Boeing 747-8 for those added units.

      • Criticisms of the program in a Government Accountability Office study released earlier this year have been countered. For example, as the program progresses, technical risk that the ABL system might not work as expected are declining.

      • The system would be effective against a range of missiles, including those tested by North Korea.

      • Laser systems have passed tests, jitter control of the laser system has been accomplished, and “we’ve been very, very successful,” Napolitano said.

      “ABL is fast becoming a reality, on the cusp of demonstrating a revolutionary capability,” Hyslop said.

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