The Airborne Laser (ABL) is proceeding well toward a successful shoot-down of a target missile later this year, Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), said.

“We are in very good shape in achieving that, at this time,” he said. He spoke before a breakfast meeting of the National Defense University Foundation and the National Defense Industrial Association at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C.

He noted that he doesn’t make such upbeat assessments lightly. “That one is doing exactly what we need it to do,” he added. “That aircraft has done some fantastic … revolutionary” work.

The ABL in the past 10 months has achieved a sterling performance, such as having the laser system show it can compensate for atmospheric distortion of the laser beam aimed at an enemy missile, a feat repeated more than a dozen times. Just this month, the ABL laser system successfully tracked a target missile, he noted. (Please see separate story in this issue.) That tracking test “gave us great confidence” that the ABL works, he said.

The program will proceed on a measured and prudent pace, he indicated, so it is surefooted as it approaches that shoot-down test. “I’m not going to let it fly until it’s ready,” he said.

O’Reilly’s comments came as members of Congress are reviewing President Obama’s defense budget plan for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010, which would cancel plans to buy any more ABL planes, even if the one prototype ABL later this year successfully uses its laser system to annihilate a target missile.

The Obama plan would leave the existing ABL prototype aircraft as nothing more than a research platform. Some lawmakers oppose that reduction, and proposed cuts in other missile defense programs. A showdown on one missile defense program is expected tomorrow. (Please see separate story in this issue.)

To be sure, O’Reilly said even that limited further ABL program could be at risk, if the ABL fails to kill the target missile. Should that occur, “I’m not going to be in a position to recommend we continue that program,” he said.

The Boeing Co. [BA], the prime contractor, provides the ABL aircraft (a heavily modified 747-400F jumbo jet) and systems integration; Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] supplies the laser system; and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] makes the beam control-fire control system.

O’Reilly also warned that missile defense is needed now more than ever, pointing to a mushrooming multiplication of missile threats worldwide. Some 5,900 missiles are in the hands of various nations, not including China, Russia and the United States.

While the fastest growth in missile proliferation is in medium-range weapons, a small fraction of the missiles out there have ranges of 3,000 km (1,864 miles) or more.

The MDA budget, at $7.8 billion in fiscal 2010, would be $1.2 billion less than the current fiscal 2009 outlays, leading some lawmakers to ask why support for missile defense programs is being cut, just when the missile threat is soaring. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, April 6, and Friday, May 7, 2009.)

O’Reilly said he wasn’t ordered by the White House or its Office of Management and Budget to make the $1.2 billion cut. Rather, he said, he was given direction to “expand capability where the threat was the greatest,” which would be in defending against the short- and medium-range enemy missiles area. While cutting funds for programs such as ABL, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, the European Missile Defense system and more, the budget plan would provide added funds for some other missile defense systems. Overall, “we have no intention of rolling back missile defense,” he asserted.

But, that said, “we are looking at cost effectiveness,” and operational effectiveness of each missile defense system, he added.

The GMD system is the only U.S. shield designed to take down long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) coming toward the United States or its allies. But O’Reilly said the GMD program is moving forward, even though some may think there is little activity there.

O’Reilly said he is concerned by emergent missile threats, including the Ashura missile in Iran and the moves by North Korea to develop ICBMs. Especially he is concerned that those rogue states have mastered the art of building multi-stage missiles. “The ability to stage is disconcerting,” he said. “That’s a significant step forward.”

Eventually, he said, the United States must be able to obliterate huge numbers of enemy missiles launched simultaneously at U.S. targets. “We need the capability to be able to launch hundreds of interceptors,” he said.

The United States aims to plus up its missile defense capabilities, he said. “We want a robust missile defense capability,” he explained.

That means beefing up the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Standard Missile-3 interceptors, he said. The SM-3 is “working well,” he said, and the MDA is “looking at moving the SM-3 onto land.”

SM-3s are interceptors currently used on Navy surface combatant ships such as destroyers and cruisers, in concert with the Aegis weapon control system.