WASHINGTON — The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) on June 13 completed the second flight test in seven days of its Airborne Laser in which the specially modified 747 aircraft used two of its onboard lasers to track target missiles as they lifted off from the ground. The tests mark the successful beginning of a nine-month campaign – featuring at least two attempts to shoot missiles out of the sky – that an MDA official hopes will give new life to the program, plans for which have been scaled back by the White House.

During each test, a 6-meter Terrier-Lynx missile was fired from southern California, and the aircraft acquired the boosting target as it burst through the cloud cover with its tracking laser, then illuminated the target with another laser to compensate for atmospheric distortions, U.S. Air Force Col. Robert McMurry, the MDA’s Airborne Laser program director, said in an interview. Instead of the high-power chemical laser weapon that will be used in actual attempts to shoot down targets starting this fall, these tests used a surrogate laser with far less power that effectively conducted a mock shootdown.

“Indications are that some of the things we learned in previous low-power flight tests have paid off,” McMurry said. “The system is more robust, and it’s had fewer errors.”

For years the MDA and Airborne Laser prime contractor Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis had been developing the system as the boost-phase component of a layered
missile defense architecture. In preparing its budget request for 2010, however, the Defense Department decided the program would be too expensive to deploy operationally given questions about its real-world effectiveness. The Airborne Laser has a 2009 budget of more than $400 million, but the MDA requested just $186.8 million for 2010, scaling the program back to a research and development effort and scrapping plans to procure a second aircraft.

The current budget request will support Airborne Laser testing only through March, McMurry said. The program will also have to trim its 600-strong work force, which is mostly contractors, he said.

“We will have enough money for program execution through the first half of the year,” McMurry said. “At that point, we expect to have a continuation review with the [Missile Defense Executive Board] either saying it is working well and showing promise or it is time to end the program.

“My sense is that if we demonstrate functionality, the MDA will advocate for additional funding. If we can’t, I think the agency will advocate to stop it.”

The current Airborne Laser test program has been revised somewhat since 2008 after a long-duration firing of the high-power chemical laser on the ground damaged some of the optics as the beam passed through the turret on the nose of the aircraft. Higher quality lenses had to be ordered, and those are now in development, said Mike Rinn, Boeing’s Airborne Laser program manager. In the meantime, the aircraft will continue on with its flight program using the surrogate laser.

The two most recent tests used targets without onboard instrumentation to tell how much energy from the lasers was being focused on the target. The next tracking test, which will take place the week of June 22, will use a more sophisticated target that will tell exactly how accurately the beams are being focused on the target, Rinn said. Following that test, fuel for the high-power laser will be added on the ground, and the craft will return to flight and the main laser will be activated but not fired through the turret. The upgraded optics will be installed after that flight, and long-duration ground test firings will begin in July or August.

After that, the craft is scheduled to return to the sky to test fire the high-energy laser through the turret into the atmosphere, at first without a target. Around mid-September, the Airborne Laser will fly to test its tracking lasers against two target missiles fired back to back. Depending how the system performs in the previous tests, it may attempt to shoot down those two targets, McMurry said. Two more shootdown attempts are scheduled to take place after that flight test in the fall and winter.

Responding to the Pentagon’s explanation for scaling back the Airborne Laser, McMurry said at this point cost is not the program’s biggest obstacle; it is proving the system has a place in military operations.

“There are clearly efficiencies that could be found if you move into a production system like this,” he said. “We’re always learning how to drive costs down.

“We have to demonstrate that it is a viable and useful weapon system. We have pretty strong engagements with the combatant commanders about this program, and they tell us if you can demonstrate the performance that we think we should get out of [Airborne Laser], then we can use it and make it militarily effective.