By Dave Ahearn

The Airborne Laser (ABL) scored an important first when it fired a high-powered megawatt class laser weapon through a beam control/fire control nose turret on a highly modified Boeing [BA] 747-400F jumbo jet aircraft, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and Boeing said yesterday.

A Boeing program leader also disclosed that the company and its teammates are investigating potential new uses for the ABL system beyond killing enemy missiles shortly after they are launched, with those potential new missions including taking down enemy aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and cruise missiles.

Both the successful ground test and the possibility of new uses for ABL can aid Boeing and the MDA in expected coming battles over likely Democratic proposals to cut ABL funding, as Congress takes up defense spending legislation for FY ’10.

Two years ago, the House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee proposed slashing most of the ABL funding, but ultimately a Democratic-controlled Congress wound up passing most of the ABL funding that Republican President Bush requested.

This time around, however, Democrat Barack Obama will be the president sending the budget to Capitol Hill. Obama has said the United States requires ballistic missile defense (BMD), but also said he wishes to see proof that each BMD system works before agreeing to fund it.

Boeing is the prime ABL contractor, while Northrop Grumman [NOC] contributes the laser system, and Lockheed Martin [LMT] provides the beam control/fire control system.

At this point, the contractor team and MDA can tell Congress that the airborne missile defense shield program is working well, meeting its schedule for development progress and holding costs in check.

“We’re exactly where we the contractor [and MDA] wanted to be,” on track to the ultimate test of having the ABL aircraft go aloft and, while in flight, shoot down a target missile, probably in late summer or in the fall, said Mike Rinn, Boeing ABL vice president and program director. “We are pretty well where we want to be on schedule and cost.”

He termed the test results unqualified “good news.”

Rinn spoke with several defense journalists yesterday, along with Guy Renard, Northrop Grumman ABL program manager, and Mark Johnson, Lockheed Martin ABL program director.

In the test a week ago, the high-powered chemical oxygen iodine laser for the first time was fired through the beam control system, which aims the laser beam at the target. A main part of the beam control system is located in a large transparent, bulbous nose affixed to the front of the 747 aircraft fuselage.

There were two very brief test firings, each lasting less than a second, Rinn said. With the aircraft on the ground, the beam was fired into a range simulator, where a small portion of the beam was rerouted into a laboratory test device to check the quality of the beam, and any wobble it might have.

After reviewing test results, the attempt was an overall success, though some minor adjustments will be made in beam control sensors, Johnson said.

It is remarkable that so few tweaks will be required, Rinn said.

A previous test last year proved the beam control system can work in flight, he said.

“We have achieved the second knowledge point of 2008” with this test, he said.

Now the brief pair of test firings will be followed this month and next by longer-duration test firings, completing ground testing, Rinn said. After that, the ABL will be prepared to head to the skies for laser firings in flight, leading up to the missile shoot-down next year.

That will be followed by other tests, where the ABL aircraft will use its laser to shoot down different classes of missiles, at different ranges and different altitudes, Rinn said.

That initial shoot-down, however, will be critical for the program, as skeptical members of Congress watch the program closely.

The shoot-down test will be “extremely important for the program,” Rinn said, adding that simulations are fine, but “there’s nothing like flaming wreckage [of a target missile] coming down” to prove beyond doubt that a missile defense system works. “There’s nothing like live fire in real tests.”

A success next year would be vital to gaining full continued ABL funding, as Congress mulls authorizations and appropriations for defense programs, he indicated.

“I am concerned about the funding stream,” he said. The ABL, he noted, “becomes a very important element” of the overall multi-layered U.S. ballistic missile defense shield. While other BMD systems attempt to kill incoming enemy missiles later in their ballistic trajectories, the ABL kills the enemy weapon soon after it lifts off in boost phase, while its flaming exhaust makes an easy heat-signature target, well before the enemy missile can spew forth multiple warheads, confusing decoys or chaff.

Aside from a shoot-down, members of Congress may be persuaded to provide more funding for ABL if the defensive system also can be shown to have added potential for taking out other types of threats, such as enemy aircraft and cruise missiles.

Rinn said Boeing is investigating this potential on its own dime, since such uses for ABL aren’t part of the current official program for the aircraft-mounted system, which only focuses on boost-phase missile defense.

Such versatility “could play” a helpful role in obtaining further funding for the program, he said.

While the ABL program has succeeded in achieving its goals on schedule, and would be bolstered by a successful missile shoot-down next year, a much larger question is how much funding Congress will be willing to provide to buy further ABL aircraft and laser systems.

Currently, the ABL program only has one 747, called Tail 1.

The key will be to persuade Congress to buy Tail 2 and later aircraft. In other words, what the ABL program can accomplish isn’t just a matter of succeeding in a very complex technology development effort, Rinn said. Rather, the fact is that what the ABL program can accomplish in fiscal year 2010 and later comes down to money. “It will be driven by funding,” he said.

In the test firing last week, a beam from the megawatt-class laser traveled the length

of the aircraft at 670 million miles per hour, racing from the aft section that houses the laser, through the beam control/fire control system, and out through the nose-mounted turret for the first time.

“The ground test proves that the ABL integrated weapon system works as planned,” said Dan Wildt, vice president of Directed Energy Systems for the Northrop Grumman Space Technology sector. “This impressive achievement validates the safe operation of the high-energy laser in conjunction with all other components of the revolutionary directed energy ABL aircraft.”

For the ground test, crews operating from onboard the aircraft at Edwards AFB, Calif., completed a planned engagement sequence by firing the high-energy laser through the entire system.