Airborne Laser (ABL)
A Boeing [BA]-Lockheed Martin [LMT]-Northrop Grumman [NOC] team is developing ABL. Raytheon [RTN] also is subcontracting to Lockheed Martin to provide the ABL track illuminator laser (TILL), which will be one of the system’s four critical lasers. Under the work split, Boeing has overall program management and system integration responsibilities for ABL, and also is developing the ABL surveillance battle management system and supplying the modified aircraft. Northrop Grumman is building the ABL’s chemical oxygen iodine laser and the related ground support subsystem. Lockheed Martin is building the beam control/fire control system.
ABL consists of a megawatt high-energy laser integrated into a modified 747-400 aircraft.
ABL would be used to shoot down ballistic missiles in their boost phase of flight.
There are no foreign participants in the ABL program nor are there plans to sell the system outside of the United States at this time.
While the ABL might be considered the most vulnerable to cuts in the Missile Defense AgencyÃs (MDAÃs) future budget plans, it is also seen as one of the most cutting edge technological endeavors in the directed energy arena. Over the years the program has been subject to schedule setbacks and a series of budget debates and cuts from both DoD and Capitol Hill. However, senior MDA officials said during the FY Ã04 budget debate they remain confident in the technology and will push the system to the point of rigorous testing before making any decisions regarding the programÃs fate. Most recently, MDA in July modified the contract for ABL to better match ongoing activities in the program with the FY Ã04 budget profile. The modification recognized adjustments of $241.7 million made in the FY ’04 president’s budget to the ABL Block 2004 program to account for cost adjustments for the laser, beam control and integration and test efforts, according to MDA officials. They stressed the contract change would not call for a slip in the program or setback the ongoing activities leading up to a lethality test of ABL. The FY ’04 budget request includes $345 million for ABL. MDA intends to continue ground testing of the first ABL aircraft; conduct the first flight of the complete ABL Block 2004 weapons system; and proceed toward a lethality demonstration in 2004-2005. To date, a modified Boeing 747-400 successfully completed a series of flight worthiness tests and is now at Edwards AFB, Calif., where the actual laser modules are being tested and will be integrated into the platform. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of MDA, last spring said the performance of ABL in demonstrations slated for this year would determine the future schedule and plans for the program. Kadish said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the ability to execute ABL and added that the "toughest 18 percent" of the program is ahead. He added that ABL is "on the edge of technology where it could succeed of fail." Meanwhile, the ABL team is continuing to work toward a “first light” of the laser this year, in which the laser will first be demonstrated in a ground-based configuration on the plane and later flown. In about 18-20 months, an actual target shootdown is slated for the system. Meeting the first light demonstration schedule this year will be critical for determining the pace of the program leading to the shootdown, according to Kadish and other MDA officials. While critics of the program have charged the system is grappling with weight issues, MDA officials say they have an understanding of the weight distribution issues on the platform and addressing issues such as equipment placement and flight duration. Depending on the outcome of the upcoming integration work and demonstrations, Kadish acknowledged there is the potential for a slight overrun on costs. ABL, during previous flight worthiness tests, flew a 120-minute flight plan to check out the aircraft’s aerodynamic performance and system operation. And, the aircraft has undergone more extensive ground tests at Edwards, according to program officials.