Two weeks ago the Airborne Laser (ABL) conducted a successful full-up, non-destructive test against a boosting target. This test was in preparation for the first-ever shoot-down test planned for later this year. Lasers are one of a new class of directed energy weapons that could revolutionize most aspects of air warfare. If successful, this next test will usher in a new era in air warfare.
What is interesting about this latest test is that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates essentially terminated the ABL program back in April, 2009 along with the only other boost-phase program in development, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor. Then he asserted that the ABL was behind schedule and not performing as intended. The Secretary did agree to continue the ABL as a test bed for development of the various systems aboard the aircraft.
Laser weapons provide instantaneous target engagement and the ability to use the same system to engage different targets while negating virtually all deployed countermeasures. The most serious challenges to deploying an operational system are, first, the need to compensate for atmospheric conditions and, second, the difficulty of accurate engagement when both the weapons platform and target are moving in the atmosphere. Solving these two challenges would be a major engineering accomplishment.
The main mission of the ABL was to shoot down ballistic missiles in their early, or boost, phase. But the ABL would have been able to perform other missions as well. It would have been able to engage any boosting missile, including the fastest and highest-flying surface-to-air missiles. The ABL also could have engaged hostile aircraft depending on the altitude of the target. Finally, the aircraft could have served as an airborne sensor, passing accurate targeting information to other missile defense systems.
The primary problem with the ABL is that it uses a chemical laser as its main weapon. A chemical laser uses a large amount of liquid fuel per shot, limiting the number of rounds that the ABL can “fire.” Also, the fuel is difficult to move, handle and store.
However, advances in solid state laser technology could soon make it possible to deploy an airborne laser on a wide range of aerial platforms. A solid state laser uses a glass or crystalline material impregnated with special chemicals. No liquids are required. Depending on the power and range desired for the laser, the weight can be significantly less for a solid state laser weapon. The ABL program is demonstrating the set of integrated technologies — sensors, targeting systems and laser weapon — that are needed to turn a laser from a laboratory experiment into a functioning weapon system.
If successful, the ABL program could pave the way to the widespread deployment of lasers and other forms of directed energy on many different platforms from which they would be able to perform a range of missions. Not only could these weapons change the nature of air-to-air warfare and missile defenses, they could also have a significant impact on air-to-ground operations. At a different power setting, most directed energy weapons could also serve as airborne sensors. It is ironic that a weapons system that the Obama Administration decided not to deploy may turn out to usher in a revolution in air warfare.
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