ABL Cuts Would Come After Program Has Seen Major Progress, Successes

Cutting funding for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system or the Airborne Laser (ABL) could harm U.S. attempts to counter enemy missile threats, just as Iran and North Korea are working full-speed to gain new missile capabilities.

So said The Boeing Co. [BA], responding to questions from Space & Missile Defense Report prompted by statements of lawmakers from both parties that funding for ballistic missile defense (BMD) programs may be slashed deeply in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010. (Please see stories in this issue.)

One issue raised has been the adequacy of testing for the GMD system, with congressional critics saying that GMD hasn’t been tested in adequate scenarios.

But Boeing noted in a statement we requested that “GMD and ABL have both made tremendous and measurable progress over the past few years.

“GMD is the only operational capability to defend the United States against long-range ballistic missile threats, and ABL is on track for its missile shootdown demonstration this year. The Boeing Company has led the best of American industry — tens of thousands of professionals, hundreds of suppliers — to meet one of the most complex national security challenges.”

ABL involves a highly modified 747-400 jumbo jet contributed by Boeing, containing a laser system by Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] and a beam control/fire control system by Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT]. It already has executed tests of firing the laser while the plane is on the ground.

We asked about the adequacy of testing.

“The GMD program has had eight successful intercepts, including an end-to-end system test in December that was the most challenging to date,” Boeing replied. “We have seen successive military commanders, such as NORTHCOM Commander Gen. Victor Renuart, who commands the forces that would defend the United States against a missile attack, testify to Congress that GMD has ‘made great strides’ and is ‘standing ready to defend the United States’ and its allies’ infrastructure and population centers, if needed.’ That is a powerful endorsement of the missile defense capability that our government customer and our industry team have delivered to the nation.”

The company argued that it is pressing ahead to execute more and better tests of the missile defense systems, but better testing could be thwarted by major cuts in missile defense funding.

“Boeing continues to work with the government customer to advance the GMD program through robust testing and spiral upgrades,” the company stated. “However, continued progress could be jeopardized if the program no longer receives adequate and sustained funding.”

We asked about the threat that such missile defense systems must confront.

“Inadequate funding could lead to a degradation of capability, just as North Korea and Iran are stepping up their ballistic missile activities,” the company responded.

Further, the ABL system offers a type of missile defense capability not obtainable in other BMD systems, which employ interceptor missiles to knock down incoming enemy weapons.

“ABL’s speed of light weapon system is uniquely able to intercept ballistic missiles early in flight when they are most vulnerable and before they deploy decoys. ABL is also able to cue other elements in the BMDS architecture. It’s the only mature boost phase program that MDA is investing in.”

We asked about the eventual flexibility and adaptability of ABL.

“Although ABL’s primary mission according to the Missile Defense Agency is to intercept all classes of ballistic missiles in the boost phase [shortly after launch], with company research and development resources, the ABL team has begun simulation work to show capabilities for the system in the future. We believe this capability could include counter-aircraft and counter-SAM and potentially counter-cruise missile.”

We asked whether ABL has undergone sufficient testing and shown enough progress.

To cut ABL severely would be ironic, after years of progress, Boeing responded, adding:

“The ABL program has logged many accomplishments over the past several years, including firing the high-energy laser through the beam control/fire control system aboard the aircraft for the first time in November. ABL is on track for its missile-intercept demonstration later this year.”