Tracking Laser Overcomes Atmospheric Distortion Far Longer Than Required For High-Power Laser To Demolish An Enemy Missile

The Airborne Laser (ABL) missile defense system scored another success, ironically just as Congress is considering President Obama’s plan to turn the ABL into nothing more than a research platform.

That latest ABL test success came when it tracked a boosting missile in flight with lasers that are able to compensate for atmospheric conditions and remain locked on the missile for an extended period.

Importantly, that extended period was far longer than would be required for a full-powered laser on the plane to annihilate an enemy missile.

Using that full-powered laser wasn’t part of this test. Rather, the full-powered laser is set to kill a boosting missile in a test slated for later this year.

The success in the test earlier this month was reported by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and by The Boeing Co. [BA]. Boeing, the lead contractor and systems integrator, provides the heavily modified Boeing 747-400F jumbo jet aircraft, while Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] makes the multi-laser system and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] contributes the beam control-fire control system.

The ABL provides a speed-of-light means for U.S. forces to take down enemy missiles shortly after they launch, in their vulnerable boost phase while they are emitting an easily tracked hot exhaust plume, before they are able to emit multiple warheads or confusing decoys or chaff. Further, the ABL would hit the enemy weapon while it still is over enemy territory, so any nuclear or chem-bio debris from the warhead would rain down on enemy territory. Finally, by striking the enemy weapon early in its flight, if there were a problem with the hit, the ABL acts so early that there still would be time for other U.S. missile defense systems to destroy the enemy missile in its midcourse or terminal phases of trajectory flight.

Undr the Obama plan, the ABL program would be frozen, with no further aircraft purchased beyond the existing prototype aircraft. Further, a separate system called the Kinetic Energy Interceptor that also hits enemy missiles in their boost phase would be canceled outright, under President Obama’s proposed defense budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010.

The ABL targeting test success follows several other ABL development successes in the past year.

"The ABL continues to make history," Brownback said. For the first time, "a boosting missile was tracked by lasers able to compensate for atmospheric conditions and remain locked on target for an extended period of time."

The ABL consists of three lasers: a tracking laser, an environmental laser that compensates for atmospheric variables, and a weaponized laser, all working in conjunction to track and destroy missiles in their boost phase. The successful test was conducted while the plane was in flight and was able to continuously track a launched missile. Earlier test successes have included firing the laser while the plane was on the ground.

Brownback continued, "I want to congratulate the Missile Defense Agency and its industry partners on this test. Every day, their hard work brings us a step closer to having a boost phase defense against ballistic missile threats. Especially with North Korea’s recent provocative behavior, ABL’s progress is more important than ever."

He referred to North Korea recently detonating a nuclear weapon underground. Also, North Korea has fired several short- and medium-range missiles. And it has fired a long-range Taepo Dong-2 missile that traveled perhaps 2,000 miles before falling into the Pacific east of Japan.

In contrast to a 2006 test launch where a Taepo Dong-2 failed, this test showed that North Korea has mastered the art of multi-stage missilery. While the third stage failed in the recent test, the Taepo Dong-2 once developed is estimated to have a full range of 4,000 miles or more, easily able to strike targets in the United States.

But the ABL was designed to counter just such a threat.

Michael Rinn, Boeing vice president and ABL program director, described the test. "This is the first time in history anyone has actively tracked a boosting missile with a laser while closing atmospheric compensation loops," he said.

Because the atmosphere and moisture in it can act like a gigantic contact lens, so the atmosphere can bend or deflect a laser beam. That means the ABL must have other laser systems to compensate for that distortion.

"This was done at significant ranges and for many times longer than would be required to kill the missile had the high-energy laser been used," Rinn noted.

And he looks forward to more ABL test successes.

"Additional missile engagements will fine-tune the pointing accuracy and performance of the system," he said. "This significant test is a major step toward conducting this year’s missile-intercept test, which will demonstrate the unprecedented speed, mobility, precision and lethality that ABL could provide to America’s warfighters."

It remains to be seen whether Congress will override the Obama proposal to turn the ABL prototype plane into nothing more than a research tool. Congress instead could decide to allow the ABL program to move forward with the purchase of at least a second test aircraft.