Mr Laser comes to Washington

Somewhere in the Big Book of Things To Do When Your Program is in Trouble, near the front, it says: “Take it to Washington”. And that is what the Missile Defense Agency is doing, bringing the Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser prototype to Andrews AFB, just a few miles from Capitol Hill. The converted Boeing 747-400F will be flown across the country for a one-day viewing, landing at Andrews on Wednesday night, 20 June, and returning on Thursday evening to Edwards AFB in California where testing continues.

It is an opportunity to see a unique, and controversial, aircraft at first hand.ABL.jpg
Even though the ABL’s megawatt-class chemical laser – designed to shoot down a ballistic missile in its boost phase – has not yet been installed, the MDA must believe it’s worthwhile bringing the aircraft all the way to Washington to give politicians (and the media) a chance to look it over. The reason, of course, is the budget deliberations now under way on the Hill. Although missile defence is doing well overall, funding for the ABL has been cut because of uncertainty over how much it will cost – and whether it will work.

The first shoot-down of a ballistic missile target is not planned until mid-2009 – and could slip to 2012 with the cuts – but the ABL should start firing a lower-power surrogate laser in flight later this month. This will mimic the characteristics of the ABL’s laser beam, but with a power of watts, not megawatts, and the target will be a modified KC-135, not a ballistic missile. But it will demonstrate whether the complex chain of sensors, electronics and optics can control and direct the beam – a critical step in proving the ABL’s viability.

And if it does work, even missile defence advocates are concerned that a fleet of laser-armed 747s could eat up funding for other programmes. They argue that missile defence should not be the only bill payer for ABL because of growing US interest in directed-energy weapons for all types of applications, from special-operations gunships to next-generation bombers.

Pehaps a guided tour will change people’s minds.

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