Article Published in the Defense News
Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said war is a continuation of politics by other means. Sometimes politics seems like a continuation of war. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the long-running debate concerning missile defense.
The U.S. Congress has been polarized over national missile defense for two decades, ever since President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative in the early 1980s. And now the friction from that debate (friction was another favorite concept of Clausewitz) threatens to spill over into the discussion of theater-missile defense.
Theater-missile defense has profound tactical implications for the Army, given the recent proliferation of ballistic missiles and mass-kill technologies. The most promising concept for effective defense is the Airborne Laser, which intercepts missiles early in their trajectories, thereby vastly simplifying the task of defenders closer to the troops.
But the Airborne Laser’s trials and tribulations in Congress – – a distinct contrast to its technical progress – – illustrate how ideology and other extraneous forces can impede the development of promising theater-defense concepts.
The basic idea behind the Airborne Laser is simple: modify seven Boeing 747 jumbo jets to carry high-powered chemical lasers that can reliably target and destroy theater-missile boosters hundreds of miles away. Because the system is self-contained, mobile and above the clouds, it can quickly and effectively respond to almost any threat within reach of U.S. troops.
And because it uses a low-cost chemical laser, it only costs about $1000 per shot – – 1% or less of the cost for using ground-based missiles.
In fact, the whole program would cost less than one day of federal spending at current rates to develop, procure and operate for twenty years. A bargain, right? Well not according to Congressional critics, who either would prefer a space-based laser (the right-wingers) or no
missile defense at all (the left-wingers).
Last year the critics successfully shifted money out of the Airborne Laser (ABL) program, claiming the concept needed closer examination. This year they’re back again, and despite efforts by the Air Force-Boeing team to respond to last year’s criticisms, they seem intent on further hobbling the program.
Following release of the findings of an independent review, headed by retired Air Force General Robert T. Marsh, warning of technical hurdles for ABL, the team quickly stretched the program one year and added extensive risk-reduction initiatives.
The added tests go far in addressing critics’ concerns on atmospheric measurement, data reduction, analyses and testing. Critics have also overlooked the fact that the Marsh panel was highly supportive of the program’s continuation.
“After more than two decades of extensive focused research and technology efforts on high-energy lasers and associated beam forming and propagation techniques, it appears that the nation is on the threshold of being able to acquire a long-sought military high-energy laser capability,” the Marsh panel reported.
“If achieved, the ability to deliver lethal doses of electromagnetic energy from an aircraft onto distant targets at the speed of light will represent a truly revolutionary weapon to the nation’s arsenal.”
A slew of technical “what-ifs” have been raised by critics, questioning the system’s ability to accurately track targets and meet necessary range requirements.
All simulation and ground tests conducted to date demonstrate ABL success, validating it can acquire a target, propagate properly through the atmosphere, compensate for any atmospheric interference and deliver lethal energy to operationally effective ranges.
These findings, combined with plans for at least another year of simulation and ground tests, suggest the ABL will evolve into a highly useful system.
One especially controversial technical issue with ABL is the ability of the laser beam to propagate through the atmosphere to reach its target.
The ABL team has collected a large amount of data on atmospheric turbulence and intends to add that to a database while expanding testing. Last year the program spent $6 million collecting data over global hotspots including Korea and the Persian Gulf.
More testing will take place overseas this year, again measuring optical turbulence, the main problem in maintaining laser-beam lethality at great distances.
ABL has also passed a number of significant milestones including demonstration of the laser lethality against full-scale replica targets and its ability to transition from plume tracking to hardbody illumination.
Responding to questions on the system’s tracking ability, the Air Force has directed the contractor team to install and test the beam control/fire control system on the aircraft earlier than the original baseline and well before a major engineering and manufacturing development design review.
Like any other high-value airborne assets, the ABL will have to operate at stand-off ranges where it is safe from threatening surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites.
There is no reason to single out ABL as uniquely impaired by the SAM threat, when AWACS, JSTARS and any number of other systems operate well with the same problem. No reason, that is, unless this particular program is being subjected to a double standard.
The bottom line is that U.S. troops need more potent theater-missile defenses as soon as possible. ABL appears to be the most promising approach, but the only way to find this out definitively is to build one and test it. So let’s get on with it.
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