By Ann Roosevelt

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and Boeing [BA] Aug. 10 successfully completed the Airborne Laser’s (ABL) first in-flight test against an instrumented boosting target missile, achieving a historic milestone.

During the test, the ABL–a modified Boeing 747-400F aircraft–took off from Edwards AFB, Calif., and used its infrared sensors to find a target missile launched from San Nicholas Island, in the Naval Air Warfare Center-Weapons Division Sea Range off central California.

The Boeing-developed battle management system aboard ABL then issued engagement and target location instructions to the Lockheed Martin [LMT] beam control/fire control system, which acquired the target and fired its two solid-state illuminator lasers to track the target and measure atmospheric conditions.

Mark Johnson, ABL program director, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, said: "Completing the low-power flight testing against an instrumented boosting target is a testament to the readiness of ABL’s Beam Control/Fire Control system. We successfully demonstrated the necessary pointing accuracy for reliable acquisition, tracking and atmospheric compensation to achieve shoot-down later this year. The outstanding performance of the government and industry team continues to keep the program on track."

As part of the ABL’s targeting system, Northrop Grumman‘s [NOC] Beacon Illuminator Laser (BILL) has been fired 282 times during recent high-power tests, 49 of which occurred in flight. The kilowatt-class, solid state illuminator laser measures atmospheric conditions, a critical task that allows compensation for atmospheric turbulence by the beam control/fire control system that points and focuses the high-energy laser’s beam on its target with pinpoint accuracy. Northrop Grumman designed and built the solid state BILL and the megawatt-class high energy chemical laser.

ABL then fired a surrogate high-energy laser at the target, simulating a missile intercept. Instrumentation on the target verified that the surrogate high-energy laser hit the target, MDA and Boeing said.

"This test demonstrates that the Airborne Laser can fully engage an in-flight missile with its battle management and beam control/fire control systems," Michael Rinn, Boeing vice president and ABL program director, said in a statement. "Pointing and focusing a laser beam on a target that is rocketing skyward at thousands of miles per hour is no easy task, but the Airborne Laser is uniquely able to do the job."

This was the third successful ABL missile engagement in a little more than two months. It follows ABL’s engagement of two un-instrumented Terrier-Lynx target missiles in early June, which allowed the team to fine-tune the engagement sequence (Defense Daily, June 15, 18)

ABL will now undergo flight tests in which the aircraft will fire its high-energy laser, first into an onboard calorimeter, then through its beam control/fire control system.

The ABL team then will test the entire weapon system against in-flight missiles, culminating with ABL’s first lethal high-energy laser intercept test against a boosting threat- representative ballistic missile later this year.

ABL is part of MDA’s ballistic missile defense system architecture, which would deter potential adversaries and provide speed-of-light capability to destroy all classes of ballistic missiles in their boost phase of flight. Eliminating missiles in their boost phase would reduce the number of shots required by other elements of the layered ballistic missile defense system.

"ABL’s revolutionary speed, mobility, precision and lethality would make it a great asset to America’s warfighters," Rinn added.

Boeing is the prime contractor and overall systems integrator for ABL, and provides the modified aircraft and battle management system.