Japanese firms might contribute components to the U.S. Airborne Laser (ABL) ballistic missile defense platform, an executive with The Boeing Co. [BA] said.
But there have as yet been no government-to-government discussions of any potential Japanese purchase of one or more of the giant missile defense aircraft.
It would, however, make sense for Japan to obtain the missile-killing capability of ABL, given the nearby missile threat posed by North Korea, according to Greg Hyslop, Boeing vice president and ABL program director. He spoke to defense journalists attending the Air Force Association 2007 Air & Space Conference at a large hotel in Washington, D.C.
"The Japanese are very interested in ABL, for obvious reasons, because they have a threat right in their back yard," Hyslop said.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that "there is a high degree of interest from the Japanese government and industry about ABL, and that [interest] has continued," he said.
He cautioned, however, that any possible Japanese purchase of the giant missile-killing aircraft has "not been discussed" on official levels. Rather, the Japanese "just want to know about ABL's capabilitries against the North Korean threat."
North Korea has fired a series of missiles, including one in the 1990s that arced over Japan before falling into the sea. When North Korea test-fired a series of missiles last year, U.S. Aegis missile defense ships stood nearby, ready to knock down any missile threatening the United States or its allies. But the one long-range Korean missile malfunctioned seconds after launch. As well, North Korea has defied global opinion by obstinately continuing to develop nuclear materials and weapons, one of which it detonated in a test. However, more recently, North Korea has offered to permit inspections and dismantling of its nuclear program.
As far as Japan possibly agreeing to allow U.S. ABL aircraft to use its air bases, Hyslop noted that would help to make ABL more effective against the North Korean threat. "Obviously, from our standpoint, if we can forward base the [ABL] aircraft, that makes it more effective," he said.
As far as Japan contributing components for the ABL, there was a limited two-year study, now wrapping up, to examine where Japanese industry might contribute to the ABL program, Hyslop said,
Boeing was on the U.S. side of discussions, while Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. of Japan was on the Japanese side.
The purpose of the study was "to look at where Japanese industry and technology might be able to have things to offer for future ABLs," Hyslop said.
Boeing, the prime contractor in this Missile Defense Agency (MDA) program, is contributing a giant, heavily-modified Boeing 747-400 freighter as the platform for the ABL missile killing system. Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] contributes the high-energy laser, and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] contributes the beam control/fire control system that aims the laser beam at the enemy missile.
Currently, the team is pressing ahead with development of an initial ABL plane. The high-energy laser should be installed next year.
The beam control/fire control system already is in place.
The question now is what Japan might contribute to future production versions of the ABL, which will cost north of $1 billion apiece.
"It's a broad range of [Japanese] technologies that were explored," Hyslop said. "And that's being pared down to a short list of technologies that should be pursued further if [MDA] would like us to continue.," The agency will decide which technologies, if any, will be included in the ABL system.
The list "really spans everything, from optical coatings" on mirrors and other items that aim the super-hot laser beams, he said, "to refrigeration systems, to systems to handle the chemicals" in the Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser, or COIL. "It really is a broad range of technologies."
MDA will develop the second ABL aircraft with laser and control systems, and then the ABL program will transition to the Air Force.