Senior programme officials claim development of the $6.2 billion Boeing Airborne Laser (ABL) anti-ballistic missile weapon for the US Air Force is on track, despite criticism and concerns voiced by the US Department of Defense and the General Accounting Office (GAO).

The GAO says that the USAF has failed to show that it can accurately predict the levels of atmospheric turbulence the ABL might encounter. It also believes that the USAF may be underestimating the complexity of integrating a laser weapon into an aircraft.

The Pentagon's operational test and evaluation office is concerned about the "significant technical challenges to the ABL's ability to perform effectively". It believes turbulence may force the ABL to move closer to enemy air defences to maintain effectiveness. The Pentagon says that optics stability and lasing subsystems are challenges and that countermeasures must be understood to assess the ABL power requirements.

Boeing, TRW and Lockheed Martin have teamed up for the five-year, $1 billion programme development and risk reduction phase, which will lead to flight testing of an ABL prototype, to be designated the YAL-1A, using a converted 747-400F. The USAF envisages seven ABL aircraft designed to shoot down ballistic missiles during their boost phases.

Demonstration of the critical flight weighted laser module (FLM) is to begin by early April. Successful testing is one of several required criteria for the programme to proceed.

Boeing's Paul Shennum, ABL project manager, says: "There are no emerging design problems." He believes that countermeasures can be handled by simply increasing the duration of the laser shot.

The ABL's preliminary design review is set for late April. The next major review of ABL will occur in June, with critical design review scheduled for October 1999.

Brig Gen Bruce Carlson says that Boeing has achieved technical breakthroughs since the auditors wrote their report.

Source: Flight International