Gates Said To Think 30 Airborne Lasers Required For Good Global Coverage Against Enemy Ballistic Missiles

Ballistic missile defense systems effective against short- or medium-range enemy missiles are “more likely to be used,” according to Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, or CSBA.

On the other hand, laser systems are far from being developed and operational as missile defense systems, Krepinevich said.

He responded to questions from Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at a committee hearing. Levin has said he would “love” to see some missile defense programs cut. And Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has proposed buying no more Airborne Laser (ABL) aircraft, in his defense budget plan for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010, leaving ABL as only a research program.

The ABL would hit enemy missiles just after they launch, in their most vulnerable boost phase, before they are able to emit multiple warheads or confusing decoys or chaff.

Later, in an interview with Space & Missile Defense Report, Krepinevich said that demolishing enemy missiles in their boost phase is a “good idea.”

By hitting enemy missiles just after they launch and ascend, if that attempt fails, U.S. forces still have time left to hit the enemy missile in its midcourse or terminal phases of ballistic flight, Krepinevich noted.

“You like to get as many shots at the [enemy] missile as possible,” Krepinevich said.

The ABL involves prime contractor The Boeing Co. [BA] contributing a heavily modified 747-400F jumbo jet plus integration work. Northrop Grumman Corp. is supplying the very high-powered chemical oxygen iodine laser, or COIL. And Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] provides the beam control-fire control system.

However, Krepinevich said the ABL isn’t the only possible way to strike enemy missiles in their boost phase of flight. One objection he has to the ABL is that it uses a chemical laser.

A solid state laser would be more reliable, he said. Also, the plane doesn’t have to be a 747, he observed. Rather, it could be a cargo plane, such as is used for the Advanced Tactical Laser, although he voiced concern that such an aircraft would have a large radar signature, and show up clearly on enemy anti-aircraft radars.

Such a solid-state laser might be developed with 10 years of work, Krepinevich said. “That may be a 10-year-out solution, and you move in that direction,” he said. “I really do think solid state is overtaking chemical. The power levels are going up rather substantially” on solid-state lasers, he said.

However, given that Iran has the technology to build an intercontinental ballistic missile now, and North Korea is testing a long-range missile, is the United States able to assume it has another 10 years to develop such a system?

“You don’t know,” Krepinevich said. But should the military “continue to pour money into ABL, as opposed to some of these other capabilities” such as solid-state units, he wondered. He said building a couple more ABLs wouldn’t provide much in the way of persistent coverage against enemy missiles.

“In my conversation with Gates, he said, … my understanding is that we’d have to build up to 30 of these things to have good global coverage,” Krepinevich noted. And that would be a chemical laser technology “that’s already being overtaken.”

Earlier, in his comments to Levin, Krepinevich voiced views similar to those of Gates, who proposes shifting money from ABL and other advanced systems still in development that are effective against all ranges of missiles including ICBMs, to older missile defense programs effective against short- and medium-range enemy missiles.

“Theater defense is more likely to be used,” given that far more enemy missiles are in the short- and medium-range class, Krepinevich said. In contrast, he said, laser missile defense systems “are far from being a done deal.”

Another witness, John J. Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, said that “personally I think we need to have national missile defense,” referring to the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, currently the only U.S. missile defense system effective against long-range or ICBM enemy weapons.

Gates would eliminate any funds to buy further GMD interceptors in his fiscal 2010 budget plan.

Supporters of the ABL say that Gates and some lawmakers are cutting funds from ABL because it isn’t fully developed and operational, but those cuts then guarantee that ABL never can finish development and become operational, in a self-fulfilling circular reasoning.

Hamre said “the threat we face every day [is in the] medium-range” enemy missiles.

He added, however, that the defense industrial base is “a national asset,” but that since the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, the industry has been “suffering from benign neglect.”