Airborne Laser Is Adaptable; Can Relocate Around Globe In Hours, Not Weeks

Missile Defense Systems Already Share Sensor Data From Radars, Briefers Say

If leaders in Washington make crippling cuts in missile defense programs, or kill them outright, tens of thousands of Americans will be dumped out of good-paying, clean industrial jobs into jobless lines amidst the worst recession since the Great Depression.

That was one of the points made as leaders of The Boeing Co. [BA] responded to defense journalists’ questions at a briefing in a Washington hotel.

For example, some lawmakers have questioned the value of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, the only U.S. protection against long-range enemy missiles.

If GMD disappeared, perhaps 55,000 direct government and contractor workers would lose their paychecks. That doesn’t count others who would lose jobs dependent on those workers spending their incomes.

If the Airborne Laser (ABL) were dropped, about 1,000 government and contractor jobs would disappear, and on top of that the nation would lose the ABL technology that was created using billions of taxpayer dollars.

"You would have to start all of that up again," said Mike Rinn, Boeing vice president and program manager for the ABL. But some people of retirement age in the ABL program might never return if the program restarted, meaning a permanent loss of expertise needed to create the airborne missile killer.

Their briefing came after Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the military must cease buying self-contained, "perfect" weapons platforms and turn to much more cost-effective platforms that perform multiple functions and share sensor systems such as radars.

ABL is a perfect response to that, Rinn said. The ABL aircraft, a heavily modified 747-400 jumbo jet, can go anywhere in the world in hours, as opposed to other missile defense systems that take days, or weeks, or that are immobile.

This is just the sort of adaptable, flexible system that Cartwright seeks, Rinn added.

And the ABL can perform multiple missions against various targets, rather than filling one niche, Rinn added.

As far as having to be sensitive to costs, many lawmakers focus on the multi-billion-dollar total price of buying several ABL aircraft fitted with lasers and beam control/fire control systems. Rinn said what is forgotten is that if several of the aircraft are purchased, the cost of each one (exclusive of development outlays) is declining. Boeing also is saving taxpayers money by reducing payroll employment by 30 percent or so in some areas.

Many lawmakers miss a key point: operating the ABL costs a fraction as much per enemy missile killed as using interceptor missiles to take down enemy rockets.

To fill the laser with chemicals on the ABL costs but $50,000 to $60,000, and the ABL then can kill many enemy missiles, Rinn noted. But using one interceptor to take down one enemy missile can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, or millions, Rinn noted.

He spoke after Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), said ABL has run $4 billion over budget and far behind schedule, likening continuation of the ABL program to insanity.

Asked about her comment, Rinn said that if the ABL is insanity, with all the technology that has been created in the transformational program, "then call me crazy." The technology has matured, he noted.

Ironically, the ABL after years of effort is just on the verge of the big payoff, set to knock down a target missile in a test in August or September.

As far as Cartwright calling for systems to share sensors, missile defense programs do that all the time, briefers noted.

For example, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the only protection against enemy long-range missiles, uses data from the giant SBX radar, which can be relocated wherever needed, Norm Tew, Boeing chief engineer and director with the GMD program, said in response to a question.

Also, data can be shared between Aegis ballistic missile system ships and the GMD.

A question also centered on whether contractors are moving too slowly in some programs to begin complex tests of their systems, as a missile defense critic alleged during a conference, for fear the systems will flunk the tests and the contractors will lose award fees.

Perhaps, Rinn said, it is time to provide an incentive for contractors to move into difficult tests, giving them an award fee for that. "I found it very interesting," Rinn said.