Airborne Laser is behind schedule and over budget

The Pentagon's first effort to build a usable high-energy laser weapon is running far behind schedule and well over budget.

Jul 1st, 2004
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The Pentagon's first effort to build a usable high-energy laser weapon is running far behind schedule and well over budget. No date is yet in sight for "First Light," the first integrated trial of all six modules of the Airborne Laser, originally set for February 2003. Total spending since the prime contract was issued in 1996 now exceeds $2 billion, twice the original target, says a report issued in May by the General Accounting Office (GAO).1

On May 27, the Pentagon awarded prime contractor Boeing another $500 million to finish building the first Airborne Laser, although it earlier put on hold plans to build additional planes. But the GAO report could herald more problems because it openly questions whether the first airborne laser will be militarily useful.

The Airborne Laser is designed to operate at multimegawatt power levels and to shoot down boost-phase ballistic missiles at ranges of up to a few hundred kilometers.
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The Airborne Laser consists of six chemical-oxygen-iodine laser modules built by Northrop Grumman and mounted in a customized Boeing 747 (see figure). The system includes systems for beam and fire control and for battle management (see Laser Focus World, January 2004, p. 105). The system was designed to operate at multimegawatt power levels and destroy boost-phase ballistic missiles at ranges of a few hundred kilometers, depending on the hardness of the target. Original plans were to defend against short- and intermediate-range missiles, but the George W. Bush administration expanded its mission to include intercontinental ballistic missiles as part of its layered Ballistic Missile Defense System. Plans called for the prototype to be the first in a small fleet of Airborne Lasers deployed for missile defense.

The GAO cataloged five major contract revisions from April 1999 to July 2003, which boosted total prime contract cost of the prototype craft from $1.02 billion to $2.12 billion. The biggest jumps came from November 2001 to July 2003, as the program moved from paper design to fabrication of hardware, which proved more expensive than had been expected. In August 2002 the first lethality test against an actual missile was moved back from late 2003 to February 2005. That last date has now vanished from program schedules. The GAO estimates costs could grow an added $431 million to $943 million through to the first full-scale demonstration.

Costs soared because of the difficulty of integrating the complex system and the pressure to speed construction. The report says "rapid prototyping forced the program to integrate components before all subcomponents were fully tested," leading to costly reworking. Producing the complex hardware and software took more time than expected. Late deliveries of hardware caused a cascade of testing and integration problems. To control such problems, the Missile Defense Agency in February shifted to a more deliberate schedule that requires achieving a series of knowledge milestones.

A major technical worry is that jitter arising from system vibrations could make it impossible to concentrate the laser beam onto the target well enough to cause lethal damage. "Currently, jitter control is developed and tested in a laboratory environment and is the least mature of ABL's critical technologies," says a GAO report on missile defense issued in April. Program managers are considering design changes, but they told GAO that they did not expect the jitter issue to be resolved before flight tests next year. Laser weight is another concern. If more laser modules are needed to meet power requirements, GAO said, "weight distribution across the aircraft's frame may become a key issue."

Until actual system tests are finished, GAO warns that claims that the Airborne Laser will be militarily useful are "highly uncertain." The agency also worries that logistics could become daunting problems. Multiple lasers are needed to keep one in the air at all times, and they will require special maintenance facilities and a laser fuel-production facility near where they are deployed.


  1. General Accounting Office reports GAO-04-643R, Cost Increases in the Airborne Laser Program, and GAO-04-409, Missile Defense

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