By Dave Ahearn

The Airborne Laser (ABL) completed its first activation tests on the ground, Boeing [BA] announced yesterday.

Those tests were conducted this month at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., home of the ABL aircraft.

ABL involves prime contractor Boeing, which contributed the heavily modified 747-400F jumbo jet; Northrop Grumman [NOC], which contributes the laser gear; and Lockheed Martin [LMT], which provides the beam control/fire control system that aims the laser beam at an enemy missile.

While most other missile defense systems hit enemy missiles in the middle or late phases of trajectory flight toward U.S. cities or other targets, the ABL would destroy enemy missiles shortly after liftoff, in their most vulnerable period before they have an opportunity to spew forth multiple warheads or confusing chaff or decoys.

Also, while other missile defense systems involve using an expensive interceptor missile to kill the enemy missile, ABL involves using a much cheaper defense, a beam of light.

Finally, while other missile defense systems have only one chance to get it right, having a U.S. interceptor missile hit the enemy missile at one point in space like a bullet hitting a bullet, with ABL, the laser beam can focus on the enemy missile as it moves in its trajectory, and keep hitting it until it is demolished.

“ABL’s weapon system integration team has done a great job preparing the high-energy laser for activation testing, which will ensure each laser subsystem is brought on line sequentially and safely,” said Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems. “Laser installation and the start of laser activation move the program a giant step closer to ABL’s missile shoot-down demonstration planned for” next year.

The final plumbing and wiring installations will be completed in coming weeks. All major components of the weapon system, including the battle management system, laser components, and beam control/fire control system, were installed earlier.

Laser activation testing is a methodical process to ensure the ABL high-energy chemical laser has been properly integrated aboard the aircraft and is ready to produce enough power to destroy a ballistic missile.

The tests first flow water or other inert substances through the laser to verify its integrity. Next, the laser’s chemicals flow through the laser to confirm sequencing and control.

When the activation tests are complete, ground firings of the laser will occur, followed by flight tests of the entire ABL weapon system. The test phase will culminate in an airborne intercept test against a ballistic missile next year.

ABL provides speed, precision and lethality, and it also has potential for other missions, including destroying air-to-air, cruise and surface-to-air missiles.