Boeing Investigating Broader Range of Missions for Airborne Laser

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WASHINGTON — Shortly after completing the first fully integrated test firing of the Airborne Laser (ABL) missile defense system, prime contractor Boeing Co. said it is spending company funds to explore a wider range of missions for the platform including air and cruise missile defense.

The ABL, a modified Boeing 747 aircraft fitted with two tracking lasers and a high-energy chemical laser, is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles as they lift off from the ground as part of a layered defense system that engages enemy missiles in all phases of flight.

Boeing Missile Defense Systems of Arlington, Va., and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Nov. 24 fired the ABL’s fully integrated chemical laser through the beam control-fire control system for the first time, Boeing announced Dec. 1. The team completed two test firings of less than 1 second each that went from the back of the aircraft through the Lockheed Martin-built beam control-fire control system, which steered and focused the chemical-laser beam into a range simulator for analysis of its properties. The chemical laser had been fired many times prior to its integration with the aircraft in February; Boeing fired the laser aboard the aircraft in September but without using the beam control-fire control system.

The multibillion-dollar program has cost more than expected and fallen well behind its original schedule. But Michael Rinn, Boeing’s vice president and ABL program director, said in a Dec. 2 media briefing that the program is now on track to make its first attempt to shoot down a ballistic missile target in late summer or early fall 2009.

The company has begun studies to determine if adding anti-aircraft, anti-cruise missile or anti-surface-to-air missile capabilities to ABL would be possible, but no conclusions have been reached, Rinn said. The ability to perform a broader range of missions would increase the ABL’s chances of continuing to receive funding during these uncertain economic times, Rinn said. He emphasized the MDA has not changed the mission of the program and that Boeing’s studies are internally funded. Boeing is not studying an anti-satellite capability for ABL, he added.

The program is nearly fully funded in 2009 at $402.1 million, but the 2009 Defense Authorization Act includes language barring any of that money from being spent on a second ABL platform, referred to as Tail 2, until the secretary of defense and the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation submit a report that says the system has demonstrated a high probability of being operationally effective, suitable, survivable and affordable.

Those reports still are pending, and Rinn acknowledged the 2009 shootdown attempt is critical to the program’s survival. Rinn would like to perform future ABL intercept tests using different types of ballistic missile targets at different altitudes, and budgetary decisions for 2010 will dictate whether and when those will be possible.

“It is imperative that we keep the momentum going for this critical technology that the United States has developed and move into the second tail as soon as we can,” he said. “A system like this takes vision and it takes a national will.”