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US Airbourne missile defense programme advances

Graphic shows elements of the United States Missile defense system including an airbourne lazer platform aboard a Boeing 747 aircraft
Lewis Page - The Register - December 2nd 2008

"This test demonstrated that the Airborne Laser missile defense program has successfully integrated the entire weapon system aboard the ABL aircraft," said Scott Fancher, jumbo-blaster veep at Boeing.

"The team has now completed the two major milestones it hoped to accomplish in 2008, keeping ABL on track to conduct the missile shootdown demonstration planned for next year."

Zapper-boffins at Boeing will now carry out further ground blasts, gradually extending the amount of time the beam is kept on. Provided that there's no bother with these, flight tests will be the next step - culminating with a shootdown of an actual intercontinental missile.

The ABL uses a large, chemically-fuelled laser in the rear half of its 747-400F freighter airframe. The beam generated here passes through management machinery in the forward half of the plane, and then through a swivelling turret in the nose which aims it at its target.

The laser plane is intended by the Missile Defence Agency to play its ray on the fuel-packed rocket stacks of enemy ICBMs as they boost upwards from enemy launch sites. Advocates of the programme suggest that this is a particularly good time to blast WMD-tipped missiles, as any tricky multiple warheads, decoys etc have had no time to come into play.

Critics, however, point out that a large fleet of extremely expensive jumbo-blasters would be required to maintain patrols within striking range of likely launch sites. Furthermore, any silo or pad located deep within a national interior would require the ABLs to intrude on hostile airspace, possibly precipitating the very attack they are designed to prevent.

On top of all that, the chemical fuelling requirements of the laser fleet would be a severe logistic problem, as the necessary stuff is highly corrosive and toxic - as are the waste products produced during firing.

The ABL programme appears to be closing in on a test at long last, following a number of years in which dates moved back pretty much one for one. However, the laser jumbo's future is far from certain. Democrats in Washington have declined so far to provide the funding that the Missile Defence Agency has requested for its initial planned ABL fleet, and the programme is something of a lame duck compared to more popular efforts like the Standard SM-3 naval missile - which successfully shot down a malfunctioning US spy satellite this summer.

With a new and less hawkish president shortly to take up office, and US government finances headed for a particularly bad period in the near future, the ABL may be going nowhere no matter how well its test programme is proceeding right now

ABL Successfully Fires Complete Weapon System From Aircraft Army Lieutenant General Patrick J. O’Reilly, Missile Defense Agency director, announced today the successful firing and propagation of the Airborne Laser (ABL) megawatt-class weapons system through the aircraft turret during ground tests at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

To complete this final milestone for 2008, the ABL’s chemical oxygen-iodine laser was fired through the beam control/fire control optical system that directs and shapes the beam before exiting the aircraft. The beam was fired into an off-board range simulator to provide realistic test conditions as it absorbs the laser’s energy and measures the overall system performance.

The completion of this highly successful test has set the stage for further ground tests at longer durations in preparation for flight tests scheduled to begin in early 2009. The flight test program will culminate in the fall of 2009 with a lethal demonstration against a boosting threat representative missile target.

The ABL is being developed as a future element of the nation’s ballistic missile defense system and will be the first weapon system using directed energy to destroy ballistic missiles in the boost phase of flight.

08-FS-0004 06/2008
The Airborne Laser

The Airborne Laser is being developed as an integral part of the Ballistic Missile Defense System designed to protect the United States, its allies, and its deployed troops from a ballistic missile attack.

Using two solid state lasers and a megawatt-class Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) housed aboard a modified Boeing 747- 400 Freighter, the Airborne Laser’s mission is to detect, track, target, and destroy ballistic missiles shortly after launch during the boost-phase.

Its revolutionary use of directed energy makes it unique among the United States’ airborne weapon systems, with a potential to attack multiple targets at the speed of light with a range of hundreds of kilometers.

Operational Sequence
1) The Airborne Laser uses six strategically placed infrared sensors to detect the exhaust plume of a boosting missile.

2) Once a target is detected, a kilowatt-class solid state laser, the Track Illuminator, tracks the missile and determines a precise aim point.

3) The Beacon Illuminator, a second kilowatt-class solid state laser, then measures disturbances in the atmosphere, which are corrected by the adaptive optics system to accurately point and focus the high energy laser at its intended target.

4) Using a very large telescope located in the nose turret, the beam control/fire control system focuses the megawattclass COIL beam onto a pressurized area of the boosting missile, holding it there until the concentrated energy causes the missile to break apart.

• Low Power System Integration-active (LPSI-a) flight test series successfully completed on Aug. 23, 2007. All three of the aircraft's laser systems used to detect, track, and engage a target mounted on a test aircraft with a low-power laser serving as a surrogate for the high-power laser. Key firsts for the program during LPSI-a flight test series:

• First in-flight atmospheric compensation between two airborne platforms

• First active tracking of a non-cooperative airborne target

• First successful tracking of a vertically dynamic target

• The High Energy Laser is now integrated on the aircraft with laser subsystem activation initiated in May 2008. The program will conduct High Power System Integration (HPSI) ground testing through the fall of 2008. Once ground testing is completed, the aircraft will undergo flight testing prior to the lethal demonstration against a boosting missile planned for 2009.

See also:
Russia vows missile pact response
Arms race fear as US plans India missile shield
A leaner, looser 'Star Wars' system
US Anti-missile test successful
Star Wars ineffective?
Star Wars - Strategic Defence Initiative

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