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House Panel Praises ABL, Provides Far More Funding

By | July 30, 2007

      ABL Scores Again In Further Testing

      The Airborne Laser (ABL) ballistic missile defense (BMD) system had a great week in which the House Appropriations Committee (HAC) wiped away the threat of devastatingly huge budget cuts that could have crippled the program, all while the ABL passed yet another test in proving its capabilities.

      ABL involves a highly modified Boeing 747 aircraft provided by lead contractor The Boeing Co. [BA], with laser systems by Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] and a beam control/fire control system to aim the laser beam at the enemy missile contributed by Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT].

      The ABL system is being developed just as rogue nations ranging from Iran to North Korea are developing increasingly long-range missile capabilities, and producing nuclear materials as well.

      Because the HAC and its Senate counterpart decide the actual amount of money the ABL program will receive in the upcoming fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007, it was a critical victory for the program that appropriating lawmakers decided to give it $499 million, just $50 million (9 percent) shy of the $549 million that President Bush requested.

      In contrast, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) provided only $299 million (54 percent of the amount requested), which in turn was vastly more than the HASC strategic forces subcommittee, which would have given ABL only $149 million (27 percent) out of the $549 million requested.

      The HAC decision to support the program (on a unanimous bipartisan voice vote) sends the overall defense appropriations bill to the House floor for further action.

      Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and others on the HASC worked overtime to head off the huge $400 million ABL funding cut that had been proposed by the HASC strategic forces subcommittee. And still more lawmakers on the HAC pressed for adequate funding for the airborne missile killer.

      Not only did the HAC provide most of the ABL funds that Bush sought, the panel also heaped high praise on the ABL program, and provided a crucial statement that a so-called “boost phase” BMD system such as ABL is needed.

      In its report accompanying the defense appropriations bill, the HAC said it “believes that a robust boost intercept capability is vital to a layered missile defense system.”

      While that might seem unexceptional, that finding is critically important. During hearings earlier this year, similar language in an amendment was rejected by lawmakers on the HASC for insertion in the defense authorization bill.

      The point here is that once Congress has found as a matter of policy that the United States urgently requires a BMD system that can demolish enemy missiles in their vulnerable period just after launching, then it becomes very difficult for Congress to reject funding requests for such programs.

      Too, it will be difficult for Congress to short-change ABL on funding, given the glowing description that the HAC gave of the aircraft-borne laser program.

      For example, the HAC “notes the technical progress that the Airborne Laser (ABL) program has made over the last three years with the early accomplishment of the firing and refurbishment of the high energy laser and the continuing flight testing of the associated beam control/fire control (BC/FC) system,” the panel observed.

      “These technical challenges were accomplished while the program stayed within the government determined schedule and budget.”

      Better yet, from the viewpoint of ABL supporters, is that the HAC warned the Bush administration and its Missile Defense Agency (MDA) not to be stingy in future budget requests for the ABL program.

      “The Committee looks forward to continued strong support and commensurate funding by the Missile Defense Agency of ABL,” the HAC stated.

      Further, the HAC portrayed the ABL program as not merely adequate, but as a model.

      “The Committee commends the MDA on its continued efforts on the Airborne Laser program,” the HAC report continued.

      “While the program has seen many technology successes, the Committee is concerned about the transition of these successes to other service programs. The Committee directs the Missile Defense Agency to develop a lessons learned program for the Airborne Laser program for future use by the Department of Defense.”

      In countering enemy missiles, the ABL system generates lower-powered aiming/tracking and atmospheric distortion compensation lasers, and then generates a high-powered laser that hits an enemy missile shortly after it rises from a launch pad or missile silo.

      The laser beam destroys the missile and fries its electronics, before the missile has a chance to spew forth confusing decoys, chaff or multiple warheads. Some analysts say that boost-phase BMD systems offer the United States the best chance of defeating an enemy missile.

      A Successful Test

      Separately, the ABL last week accomplished another first.

      The system successfully propagated its Beacon Illuminator Laser (BILL), using the return to compensate for atmospheric disturbances.

      This announcement comes on the heels of the July 13 demonstration of an engagement sequence using a beacon from the target aircraft.

      The latest test, on Tuesday, demonstrates the ABL ability to use both its illuminator lasers to track a simulated target, compensate for atmospheric disturbances, and to complete the engagement sequence by simultaneously propagating a surrogate high energy laser to the target.

      In addition, laser run times demonstrated in flight are of durations that are more than adequate to destroy ballistic missiles.

      This is a major step toward completing the second of the program’s two Low Power System Integration-Active Flight Test knowledge points, the first of which was accomplished earlier this month, according to MDA.

      The successful engagement included detecting the Big Crow (modified NC-135) target board, tracking it with the Tracking Illuminator Laser (TILL), detecting and compensating for atmospheric distortions with the BILL return off the target, and engaging with the Surrogate High Energy Laser (SHEL).

      ABL will continue its flight tests against the Big Crow airborne target to further characterize ABL performance before beginning installation of the advanced Chemical Oxygen- Iodine Laser (COIL) at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., later this summer.

      Kinetic Energy Interceptor Funds

      The other traditionally boost phase BMD program is the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, or KEI, which involves using a missile to intercept and collide with an enemy missile to destroy it.

      Here again, the HAC rejected the stance of others to short-change the KEI program.

      HAC lawmakers were unhappy that MDA requested only $227.5 million for KEI, which would have represented a $179 million drop from existing levels.

      Rejecting that approach as wrong, the HAC proposed appropriating $372.9 million for KEI in fiscal 2008.

      Further, HAC lawmakers were displeased that beyond cutting funding support for KEI, the MDA proposed downgrading the missile defense program despite KEI being well run.

      “MDA drastically descoped the program,” the HAC report observed. “Even though the KEI program has met each knowledge point while remaining on schedule and on budget, it has been used as an offset” or piggy bank to fund other programs “on numerous occasions for other more high risk programs.”

      While KEI was conceived as a shield killing enemy missiles in their boost phase, the MDA had proposed changing KEI to a different type of asset “replacing the Ground-based Midcourse Interceptor,” the HAC noted disapprovingly.

      Rejecting this approach, the HAC “disagrees with this change and has provided additional funding in an effort to accelerate this much-needed capability,” the report stated.

      Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor, heading a team including Raytheon Co. [RTN] and others.

      Funding Other Programs

      The HAC fiscal 2008 defense appropriations bill also provides:

      • A cut in the Bush request of $331.5 million for the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS), reducing the portion of the total STSS program request dedicated to the follow-on space system to $30.7 million, rather than the $105.8 million that Bush sought.

      • The Aegis BMD weapon control and radar system drew praise from the House members. HAC members stated that the Aegis program showed “progress and promise in continued success.” The panel funded the Aegis program, and provided extra money as well to continue the open architecture and ballistic missile signal processor efforts. And extra money was found to upgrade two more Aegis destroyers to a long range track and surveillance and engage capability for the Atlantic fleet by the end of 2009. Finally, the HAC objected to MDA raiding Aegis budget accounts to pay for other missile defense programs, deciding that “MDA shall fully fund and execute the Aegis program as Congress intends.”

      • Expressed extensive displeasure at the way that MDA has manipulated funds for the Command and Control, Battle Management and Communications (C2BMC) program, and directed MDA in future to fully fund it in the C2BMC program element. The HAC warned that if MDA uses different multiple ways and sources of funding the program, the committee will consider all of those other funds “to be excess to need.”

      • The HAC provided $272.2 million for the Multiple Kill Vehicle program, telling MDA to accelerate its development and delivery.

      • And the HAC expressed worry about the possibility that terrorists or other non-state actors might use cruise or short-range missiles to attack the United States from vessels or aircraft offshore. MDA drew kudos from the committee, with the HAC finding that MDA “made valuable contributions in conducting studies and analyses and providing recommendations for potential means to address the threats.” However, the HAC report noted that “much additional work remains to be done,” and appropriated an extra $15 million beyond requests to aid the effort. The HAC also ordered the MDA to develop a recommended architecture and concept of operations for homeland asymmetric missile defense to include progressions for spiral technology upgrades that would enhance cruise and ballistic missile defense capabilities, demanding a report by March 1 on results achieved and plans for the future.

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