Airborne Laser Goes Two for Three in 1st Intercept Tests

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WASHINGTON — A laser-equipped Boeing 747 aircraft flying above the Pacific Ocean fired at two missile targets Feb. 11, downing one but failing to destroy the other, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and industry officials.

In its long-awaited shoot-down test, the MDA’s Airborne Laser (ABL) took off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and engaged a short-range, liquid-fueled ballistic missile target that was launched from a mobile sea-based platform. According to a Feb. 11 MDA press release, the ABL acquired the target within seconds using its tracking laser, fired a second targeting laser that measured and adjusted for atmospheric distortion, and then fired its high-power chemical laser, which took out the missile.

The entire engagement took less than two minutes, and the target was destroyed while its rocket motors were still thrusting, the MDA said.

Within the same hour, the ABL also detected, tracked and fired on a solid-fueled sounding rocket launched from San Nicolas Island, Calif. The high-power laser hit its target, but an anomaly caused the system to shut itself down before the target was destroyed, Mike Rinn, Boeing’s ABL vice president and program manger, said in a Feb. 12 interview.

The system returned to ready status during the flight, but a second attempt to shoot down the target was not made. Echoing remarks by MDA’s director, Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, shortly after the flight test, Rinn said the result was akin to scoring the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl but then missing the extra point.

“We took a challenge to come back around after that first missile and shoot another solid test rocket down,” Rinn said. “We ran through our test objectives but we did not finish. We did not destroy that one.

“We couldn’t be prouder. … We pulled together some extremely difficult technologies, brought it out, matured it and got it in the air and then we killed two missiles in seven days.”

The multiple shoot-down test followed a Feb. 3 test previously unannounced by the MDA in which the ABL destroyed a sounding rocket similar to the one it failed to down Feb. 11, the release said.

MDA spokesman Rick Lehner said that, unlike the liquid-fueled missile that was destroyed Feb. 11, the sounding rocket targets were not representative of the threats the ABL is designed to address.

Boeing Defense, Space & Security of St. Louis is the prime contractor for the ABL program. The high-power chemical laser was developed by Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Redondo Beach, Calif., and the beam control/fire control system was developed by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif.

“The [ABL] team made history with this experiment,” Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s vice president and general manager for missile defense, said in a Feb. 12 statement. “Through its hard work and technical ingenuity, the government-industry team has produced a breakthrough with incredible potential. We look forward to conducting additional research and development to explore what this unique directed energy system can do.”

The MDA at one time had plans to field operational versions of the ABL for boost-phase missile defense, but the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has scaled back the program. Plans now call for using the experimental ABL platform as a test bed for research on directed energy weapons. Depending on available funding, the aircraft may conduct up to two more flight tests this year, MDA Executive Director David Altwegg said Feb. 1. However, Lehner said Feb. 12 that no additional flight tests are currently scheduled. Following the flight test program, management of the ABL will be transferred from MDA to the Office of the Pentagon’s Director of Defense Research and Engineering and the High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office, MDA budget documents show. The ABL has a $182.3 million budget for this year, but the MDA did not request any money for the program in 2011.

The MDA did, however, request $98.7 million for a new funding account called directed energy research. Near-term efforts will include development of a new Diode Pumped Alkaline-gas Laser System, and a focus on scaling lasers for testing and use on “operationally viable and logistically supportable platforms,” the budget documents said.