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Many ABL Systems Already In Aircraft, But Further Progress Imperiled

By | June 25, 2007

      Funding At Risk; Lawmakers, Brass, Given Tour Of Airborne Laser Boeing 747

      Many of the components required to make the Airborne Laser (ABL) a working ballistic missile defense system already are in place on the gigantic modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft, and myriad successful tests have been conducted on the system.

      A tour of the plane showed the mammoth aircraft exterior is matched by an impressive laser-defense system taking form in its interior.

      Yet ABL stands imperiled, at risk of being delayed for years because of a move in Congress to cut funding for the ballistic missile defense (BMD) shield program.

      To help bolster support for ABL, the Boeing 747 landed at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on a mission to rally support for the financially endangered missile defense system among those with the power to save it.

      If a House-passed plan prevails to slash ABL funding to $299 million from the $549 million that President Bush requested in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, that would delay the ABL development effort by two years or more, according to an Air Force officer. (A pending Senate plan would provide a bit more, $349 million.)

      So the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) offered guided tours of the immense laser plane to some 200 members of Congress and staffers, top-ranking Pentagon leaders and the media, in a one-day only opportunity to see the plane that normally resides on the West Coast.

      The tour came just a day before MDA conducted a stellar test of another part of the multi-layered U.S. shield against enemy missiles, the Aegis sea-based BMD system, with a successful destruction of a target over the Pacific Ocean. (Please see separate story in this issue.)

      If the House-passed 45.5 percent cut in ABL funds is adopted in the eventual final version of the Department of Defense authorization bill, that “would significantly slow us down,” said Air Force Col. John Daniels, ABL program director with MDA.

      The funds cut would mean lost time of “at least two years, is my guess,” Daniels said.

      If that financial reduction, or something of equal import, is to eventuate, then MDA would begin to discuss with contractors just how that would affect development of the missile shield, he said.

      The Boeing Co. [BA] is the prime contractor and contributor of the immense aircraft, while Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] provides the laser that destroys enemy missiles and fries their electronics, and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] provides the beam control/fire control that directs the laser beam to the enemy missile. Officials from the three firms briefed the media during a tour of the immense plane.

      While other missile defense systems kill an enemy missile by intercepting it at one specific point in time and space, the ABL fires a continuous laser beam at the threat weapon until it explodes and rips open. Thus the ABL doesn’t entail the drawback of having a one-chance-only opportunity to make the kill.

      On the one hand, the ABL seems to be expensive: it might cost roughly $1.5 billion each for a fleet of seven planes.

      But in other ways, ABL is cheap. For example, it costs far less to fire a beam of light than it does to fire a high-performance, fast-acceleration, precision-guided anti- missile missile.

      And with ABL and any other BMD system such as the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, the Ground-based Midcourse missile Defense (GMD) network, the Aegis sea-based system, or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, the cost of any of these, or even the $100 billion combined price tag on all of them, pales in comparison to the financial cost of losing just one major city, such as Los Angeles, Washington, New York City or San Francisco, to a weapon of mass destruction atop an enemy missile.

      U.S. development of ABL and other anti-missile systems comes as North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon in an underground explosion, and also is continuing missile tests. As well, Iran has conducted an array of missile tests, including a missile launch from a submerged submarine, and Teheran leaders also have refused to halt nuclear materials production efforts.

      As well, China is developing or procuring an array of missiles with ranges up to intercontinental ballistic missiles. And China proved by destroying one of its own satellites that it can use ground-based missiles to destroy U.S. and allied military and civilian space assets at will.

      In a media tour of the immense ABL aircraft, components of the laser BMD system already were in place, including a “wall of fire” that processes the high-powered laser beam, and components directing low-powered lasers to find enemy missiles and then to calculate and compensate for atmospheric distortion that could bend the high-powered laser away from the missile.

      The high-powered laser itself in coming months will be installed in a gigantic empty space toward the tail of the aircraft.

      All this is building toward 2009, when the laser unit will fire a laser beam aimed by a swiveling ball in a gigantic nose installed on the plane, taking down a missile in flight.

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