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Missile Defense Laser Beam Test Fails

October 22, 2010

The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said on Thursday that a converted Boeing 747 equipped with a powerful laser failed its test of shooting down a mock enemy ballistic missile.

An MDA spokesman said that preliminary indications are that the so-called Airborne Laser Test Bed tracked the target’s exhaust plume but did not hand off to a second, “active tracking” system as a prelude to firing the high-powered chemical laser.

“The transition didn’t happen,” he said. “Therefore, the high-energy lasing did not occur.”

Boeing is the prime contractor of the project, while Northrop Grumman supplies the high-energy laser and Lockheed Martin Corp. has been developing the beam- and fire-control systems.

Last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates scaled back the program into a research experiment.

About $4 billion has gone into it since Boeing won the contract in 1996.  The system is designed to focus a super-heated beam on a pressurized part of a boosting missile long enough to cause it to fail.

President Barack Obama asked Congress for $98.6 million for the fiscal 2011 for all of the Defense Department’s directed energy research, including the Airborne Laser Test Bed.

The flying raygun is a potential part of a layered U.S. ballistic missile shield against weapons that could be fired by countries like Iran and North Korea.  Pentagon planners initially envisioned for the aircraft to shoot down ballistic missiles near their launch pads.

“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 (safe) distance from the launch site to fire,” Gates told the House of Representatives Appropriations Defense subcommittee last year after scaling it back.

The technology is now being tested by other potential missile-defense applications.

The U.S. spent $10 billion every year to build a barricade against missiles that could be loaded with chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.

The MDA said that officials would investigate the cause for the “transition failure” that occurred during the Airborne Laser system’s test. 

“The intermittent performance of a valve within the laser system is being examined,” the statement said.

The system successfully shot down a target ballistic missile in February in the first test.

Pentagon and Boeing officials said the initial success demonstrated the potential use of directed energy against enemy ballistic missiles shortly after they launch.

The second test, which was conducted on September 1st, was designed to double the distance between the 747-400F aircraft and the target to about 100 miles.

However, the MDA said it ended early when corrupted beam control software steered the high-energy laser slightly off center because of communication problems.

Lehner said the range of the most recent test was “the same as the successful February experiment.”

He said the MDA still considered directed energy “in some form” to have a lot of potential for missile defense.

The system carried a price tag of $1 billion to $1.5 billion for each aircraft before Gates canceled a second aircraft in June 2009.

Image Caption: YAL-1A Airborne Laser in flight with the mirror unstowed.

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