Boeing 747 Does Well In ABL Work; MDA Not Seeking Different Plane

Some friendly nations have shown interest in acquiring the U.S. Airborne Laser (ABL) system to defend themselves from incoming enemy missiles, according to Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering III, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) director.

Obering also said that MDA is satisfied with the highly modified Boeing 747-400 jumbo-jet aircraft serving as the test bed for the Airborne Laser (ABL) missile defense system, and therefore MDA would be unlikely to hold a competition for the ABL production-version aircraft.

Asked whether MDA intends to put the ABL on some other plane when the program moves from development into production, Obering replied, “No, we’re very satisfied with the 747, in terms of the airframe.”

On global interest in the ABL, Obering declined to specify just which nations might wish to procure the system, but noted that the United States already cooperates with friendly countries in various missile defense programs.

Some 18 nations work with the United States, in some form, on missile defense, he said.

That includes, for example, Japan, which is equipping ships with the Aegis weapon control system and the Standard Missile interceptor. Other nations are involved in joint research and development with the United States on anti-missile systems, to procurement.

A key point here, he said, is that these links demonstrate that it isn’t just the United States which sees a growing threat in the proliferation of longer-range missiles among many nations around the world.

Many friendly nations are concerned at the increasing number of “countries using ballistic missiles as [a] supplement [to their] air forces,” Obering said. Consequently, “a growing number of nations are very, very interested in collaborating with us and gaining some type of missile defense capability themselves.”

Airborne Laser

The ABL has come a long way in its years of development, Obering told journalists at a Pentagon press briefing. “There’s been so much work done there in that” aircraft, he said.

Further, he added, the ABL involves gigantic equipment, and therefore requires an immense plane to carry it. “Frankly, if you look at the requirements, the major movement, so to speak, it’s going to require a 747 aircraft to be able to do that,” Obering said.

So rather than seeking another plane, the MDA is focused on how it can more efficiently employ the 747, he said, including ways to install the elephantine gear in the plane.

“What we’re looking at, is, how can we get efficiencies in the produceability of the installations, can we simplify the design, based on the testing that we have” performed, he explained. “Can we take some additional risk in some areas because we have more margin than we thought we needed? That type of thing. So that’s what we’re looking at right now. Also, bring in maybe some other experts to take a look at … produceability, and where are some of the areas for investment.”

The ABL program involves <ST>The Boeing Co. [BA]<E> as the prime contractor, coordinator and provider of the aircraft, along with <ST>Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC]<E> providing laser systems and <ST>Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT]<E> contributing the beam control/fire control system.

ABL would use a high-powered laser beam to blast a hole in an enemy missile, and fry its electronics. While many other missile defense systems hit enemy missiles in the middle or late stages of their ballistic trajectories, ABL would hit the enemy missile when it is most vulnerable and easily spotted, just after liftoff when it is blasting out white-hot exhaust gases, before the enemy missile has a chance to deploy confusing multiple warheads, decoys or chaff.

Also, while other missile defense systems involve having a U.S. defense missile hit the enemy missile to destroy it — a bullet hitting a bullet — at one split-second point in space and time, the ABL laser can hit the enemy missile continuously until it is destroyed.

Obering noted that individual components of the ABL system have been tested successfully. Next year, they will be tested together, leading to a test in which the 747 will go airborne and demolish a target missile in flight.

Interest in missile defense systems such as the ABL is rising along with the worldwide threat from missiles.

Iran, for example, is wielding medium-range missiles, he noted, and Tehran also has announced it is working on a space program. The technology for placing satellites in orbit is much the same as the technology for intercontinental ballistic missiles. This expertise is “directly applicable to an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Obering said. An ICBM launched from Iran could strike not only Europe and U.S. installations there, it also could strike the United States.