Is the Airborne Laser headed for mothballs—again?

Nov. 1, 2007
WASHINGTON, D.C. —Things are heating up on Capitol Hill over proposed cuts to funding for the Airborne Laser (ABL) project.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Things are heating up on Capitol Hill over proposed cuts to funding for the Airborne Laser (ABL) project. In development since 1996, the ABL has had strong advocates at the U.S. Department of Defense and higher levels of government. Even the bi-partisan U.S. Congress has largely supported the program—until recently, that is. The ABL has been in a funding tug-of-war this year in both the House and Senate—to the tune of about $400 million in proposed cutbacks. And according to news reports, the Pentagon says that kind of reduction could end the ABL program for good (see “Lights Out for Laser Jet?”, Wired, October 15).

Not surprisingly, President George Bush is not ready to throw in the towel. In a speech at the National Defense University (Washington, D.C.) on October 23, Bush argued that missile defense is a “vital tool” for American security and that Congress needs to stop trying to cripple programs like the ABL. “(Missile defense) is a vital tool for deterrence, and it’s a vital tool for counter-proliferation. Yet despite all these benefits, the United States Congress is cutting funding for missile defense,” he said. “Congress has eliminated $51 million from the Airborne Laser program—a critical effort that will allow us to intercept missiles in the boost stage of flight. Congress has slashed $50 million from the Multiple Kill Vehicle program that will help us defeat both the incoming warhead and the decoys deployed to overcome our defenses. Congress has cut $50 million from the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, a constellation of space satellites that can help us more effectively detect and track ballistic missiles headed for our country. Each of these programs is vital to the security of America—and Congress needs to fully fund them.”

The good news is that, despite the proposed Congressional cuts, the program is now expected to be funded at the requested level of $549 million in FY2008. And by 2012, ABL funding is still expected to be up to $1 billion. In fact, the ABL program appears to be moving ahead nicely, according to its lead contractors—Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Raytheon. Boeing provides the modified 747–400F ABL aircraft and leads overall systems integration and testing. Northrop Grumman supplies the laser (a chemical oxygen iodine laser) and the beacon illuminator laser, which is used to measure atmospheric conditions between the aircraft and the target. Lockheed Martin provides the beam control/fire control system, which incorporates the beacon illuminator laser and ABL’s other illuminator, the track illuminator laser, which tracks hostile ballistic missiles.

At present, the laser, which has undergone extensive ground testing, is now being taken apart and reassembled onto the Missile Defense Agency’s ABL aircraft, a Boeing 747, in preparation for high-power system testing. According to Guy Renard, Northrop Grumman’s ABL program manager, most components within the chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) showed very little degradations. Once the laser is reassembled, another round of ground tests are slated for late 2008, followed by a “very methodical flight test program” in August 2009 that will include a shootdown of a missile, according to Renard. —Kathy Kincade

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