At one time, the Airborne Laser (ABL) was considered to be on the leading edge of the revolution in military affairs. The ABL was one of a host of programs initiated or given additional impetus by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld under the banner of defense transformation. The combination of high fidelity sensing, tracking and targeting with a speed-of-light weapon was thought to have the potential to radically change military operations. While its intended role was to intercept ballistic missiles in the early part of their flight trajectory, the ABL was thought to have unique potential in a number of other areas from anti-satellite missions to the suppression of enemy air defenses. With the ABL’s termination, virtually nothing remains of the program.
Ironically, the ABL worked. Last year it successfully shot down two ballistic missiles. However, this was not enough. The ABL ran afoul of challenges that were technical, operational and budgetary. The ABL program achieved remarkable success in such areas as beam and fire control, laser targeting and platform dynamics. However, by its very nature an airborne chemical laser was an unruly beast that was successfully tamed only after intensive efforts. In addition, the limited range of the ABL, the small number of shots available per aircraft and the requirement to deploy multiple aircraft in order to maintain a single orbit all worked against the operational utility of the system. Finally, as is the case with many defense programs that push the technological envelope, continuing changes to the funding available for the program caused schedule slippages that doomed the entire effort.
In the end, the ABL program could not achieve metamorphosis, transforming from a grand science experiment into a deployable operational system. Critics argue that it was a mistake even to make the attempt; the ABL program was doomed from the start. Moreover, they assert, the ballistic missile threat didn’t evolve with the rapidity that warranted taking on the technical risks associated with weaponizing a chemical laser.
Proponents asserted that only by making the effort and taking the risks was it possible to make progress in so many areas. There will be directed energy weapons deployed in the future; the ABL program gave the Department of Defense potential long-term advantages in this area. Moreover, the proliferation of theater ballistic missiles in the late 1990s by such countries as North Korea, Pakistan and Iran suggested the danger was increasing. Ironically, if the Obama Administration’s Phased Adaptive Approach fails to remain on schedule, the Pentagon may well wish it had continued the ABL program as a hedge capability for early intercept of long-range ballistic missiles.
Once it seemed relatively easy for the Department of Defense to turn breakthroughs in the sciences into state-of-the-art weapons systems and to do so in just a few years. Now it seems all but impossible. Understanding why could be the most important lesson the Airborne Laser program has to offer.
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