The Boeing Airborne Laser Testbed successfully shot down a Scud missile-like target at 2044 PST off the California coast, a landmark achievement in the $6 billion programme's 16-year history.

The ALTB, a 747-400 freighter modified with a 1MW-class chemical laser and a 1.5m telescope mounted on the nose, used onboard sensors to acquire the short-range ballistic target shortly after launch from an offshore, mobile platform, the Missile Defense Agency says in a press release.

The ALTB then fired a low-energy laser to measure atmospheric disturbances and make corrections. Finally, the ALTB fired the high-energy laser, which destroyed the ballistic missile within two minutes of target launch.

The test marked the first attempt by the ALTB to shoot-down a ballistic missile powered by liquid fuel.

Airbourne Laser shoot down 
Photo by Missile Defense Agency
An infrared image shows the Airborne Laser Test Bed destroying a ballistic target using a high energy laser.

The MDA has not revealed the speed of the target missile or its range from the ALTB.

Boeing released a press release describing the event as a "breakthrough with incredible potential".

"We look forward to conducting additional research and development to explore what this unique directed-energy system can do," says Greg Hyslop, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems.

The Department of Defense, however, last year re-classified the Airborne Laser from a development programme to a testbed effort, and withdrew funds to build a second flight test aircraft based on the 747-8.

In 2009, MDA and Boeing officials said they planned to continue a series of intercept tests through the end of 2010 in an effort to reduce risk and expand the envelope of the ALTB's operations.

The programme has been criticized over its 16-year history as being an expensive and technically problematic solution to the task of intercepting ballistic missiles during the boost phase.

The MDA originally planned to destroy the first ballistic target in 2005, but schedule delays postponed the event for nearly five years.

Boeing is the lead contractor for ABL, but Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin also provide major systems. The ABL is comprised of a chemical oxygen iodine laser, or COIL, as the weapon. The telescope is mounted in a bulbous nose assembly weighing 5,443kg (12,000lb).

Source: Flight International