Boeing Wichita has started the 18-month conversion of a 747-400 freighter into the YAL-1A Airborne Laser (ABL) prototype for the US Air Force. Tests will conclude with firings against simulated theatre ballistic missiles targets in 2003.

Laser testing as well as lethality and vulnerability assessments are among five technical areas which have cleared study milestones, says the USAF. The programme is on track, it adds, but the $11 billion project is reportedly facing budget cuts that could delay the ABL's fielding beyond the planned 2007.

Modifications to the freighter include the installation of a nose-mounted turret to direct the TRW-developed high-energy chemical oxygen-iodine laser, specialised optics and computers to control the system.

Airworthiness certification is to be completed in early 2002 with operational testing to start in March of the same year. Nearly 80 target engagements are planned.

ABL is in a $1.3 billion programme definition and risk reduction phase. Successful operational tests would lead to a 30-month engineering and manufacturing development phase from early 2004. Three aircraft are to be operational by late 2007, followed by the others two years later.

Last November, the USAF proposed a $258 million funding cut, which would raise overall costs and slip the schedule by up to two years. Reports suggest that the Department of Defense may slash $800 million over the next five years, further threatening the programme. Nearly $310 million is earmarked for ABL research in the current fiscal year.

ABL programme director Col Michael Booen says "budget deliberations are ongoing", and notes that a final budget figure will not be agreed until later this year. Booen says a major budget cut would force him to consider the delayed fielding of a less-capable weapon.

Prime contractor Boeing is responsible for the aircraft as well as the surveillance, battle management and command and control systems. Lockheed Martin is building the target acquisition, fire control and beam control systems. Seven ABL aircraft including the YAL-1A are to be bought.

Source: Flight International