Saturday, February 13, 2010

The United States Missile Defense Agency have announced that their airborne laser system has successfully shot down a ballistic missile for the first time. In a test on Thursday the “Airborne Laser Testbed” (ALTB), a modified Boeing 747-400F, detected a boosting short-range missile and tracked it using a low-energy laser. A second low-energy laser was used to measure and compensate for atmospheric disturbance, before the aircraft’s High Energy Laser was used to destroy the target.

The missile was liquid-fuelled and said to be “threat-representative”, possibly similar to a Scud. It was launched from sea, and shot down by the ALTB within two minutes. In a second test less than an hour later, a solid-fuel missile launched from a ground location was also successfully hit by the High Energy Laser, but deliberately not destroyed. A similar missile was destroyed on February 3.

In a press release announcing the successful tests the Missile Defense Agency said: “The revolutionary use of directed energy is very attractive for missile defense, with the potential to attack multiple targets at the speed of light, at a range of hundreds of kilometers, and at a low cost per intercept attempt compared to current technologies.”

The ALTB is described as a “pathfinder” for the use of directed energy in missile defense. It is designed to operate at high altitudes above the clouds, and to detect and destroy ballistic missiles soon after launch whilst they are still in their boosting phase. The aircraft is provided by Boeing, the main laser by Northrop Grumman, and the control systems by Lockheed Martin.

“Through its hard work and technical ingenuity, the government-industry team has produced a breakthrough with incredible potential,” stated Greg Hyslop, vice president of Boeing Missile Defense Systems. He said that the experiment had “made history”.

The US has been working on the program since 1996, and has faced numerous problems in that time. The megawatt-class High Energy Laser is known as the chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL), and consists of six modules, each as large as an SUV. The sheer weight of chemicals needed was almost too much for the 747 jet. The laser also had problems with accuracy due to atmospheric conditions.

February’s tests were originally scheduled to be carried out in 2002. The amount spent getting the project to this stage has also risen from a planned US$1 billion to $7.3 billion. Last year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cut the program back to a single jet for research, suggesting it would not see actual deployment.

“The reality is that you would need a laser something like 20 to 30 times more powerful than the chemical laser in the plane right now to be able to get any distance from the launch site to fire,” Gates told Congress. “So, right now the [jet] would have to orbit inside the borders of Iran in order to be able to try and use its laser to shoot down that missile in the boost phase.”

Gates also raised concerns at the large number of planes that would be required, and the ensuing cost. However, he said that directed energy weapons still had potential for missile defense.