“We remain on track to complete a lethal demonstration in 2009,” says an Airborne Laser (ABL) developer. “There’s nothing like flaming missile wreckage to show the world the system is viable and that it works.”
Indeed, and it looks like the initial dreams of having an anti-missile laser system have come one more step closer to reality, but not quite as envisioned in President Regan’s “Star Wars” project as announced in 1983 as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Rather than having an orbital laser, the USAF and a group of military contractors have test-fired a powerful, missile-melting laser housed inside a Boeing 747. It may only be a stationary test, but in an effort to deal with the threat of missile launches from rogue nations, the ABL is one more step closer to completion…
On reading a recent article about the ABL, it became abundantly clear as to the priorities of the US government: defending the nation against the possibility of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) being launched from one of the growing number of “rogue nations” or well-funded terrorist factions. Having just written a few articles about NASA budget concerns, the development of the military ABL sounds more like the recent media coverage of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Woefully behind schedule and grossly over-budget. But in the case of the ABL, there appears to have been little concern (so far) as military budgets are more generous than NASA’s.
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After 12 years of development, sucking up $4.2 billion, the most powerful military laser could be collecting its first airmiles as soon as next year. However, this isn’t what President Regan had in mind when he announced the Cold War era Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) 25 years ago. The SDI has since been watered down (due to the break-up of the Soviet Union), and ambitious projects have taken a back seat. Although the dream of having an orbital laser defence platform has since been deemed technically difficult and expensive, the laser-in-an-airliner concept appears to be an ideal compromise.
And so, at Edwards Air Force Base on November 24th, the military and defence contractors Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, watched the first test of the weapon on a stationary target. It appears that it worked and, although details are sketchy, it worked very well. This is a huge milestone in the 12-year development of the system as this is the first time the laser was fired from its winged transportation. All that is required is a full-flight test of the system and the US will be a lot closer to the remote protection against ICBM attack.
So how does it work? During times of tension when missile launches are a threat, the laser-carrying 747 will fly in a holding pattern a few hundred miles away from the location of missile silos or mobile scud units. Should the heat signature of a launching missile be detected by satellites or ground-based military units, the ABL will spin its nose-mounted turret at the launching missile. On firing, the megawatt laser (the precise energy is classified) will hit the accelerating missile. The incident radiation from the laser will melt, bend and buckle the missile during the very early stages of launch, guaranteeing its break-up. The threat will therefore be neutralised. As the computer systems used are so advanced, and as laser light travels at the speed of light, it is hoped this weapon will have a near-instantaneous reaction time.
The scope for the ABL doesn’t stop at ICBMs. There is a huge potential that it may be used to target satellites, possibly rendering spy satellite systems useless during times of war. However, the ABL targeting system is set up to target the missile launch heat signature, but this may be developed to include a satellite targeting system. Weapons analysts have also pointed out that the ABL could be used against other aircraft, possibly making jet dogfights a thing of the past. This may lead to an era of entirely laser-fought battles.
It is essential the military project explores all the possibilities for the ABL as Obama’s transition team will be looking closely at this expensive endeavour, possibly leading to its cancellation if its use is exclusive only to ICBMs…
Source: New Scientist