A high-powered laser destroyed a target missile in flight off the Central California coast in a milestone test of a futuristic but troubled national defense system, the Air Force announced Friday.
A laser weapon mounted on a Boeing jumbo jet tracked the missile as it accelerated over the ocean off the Point Mugu Naval Warfare Center Thursday night, then fired an energy beam that heated the missile until it cracked and broke up, according to statements from the Air Force and two aerospace companies involved in the program.
The test is a boost for a program that has had billions in cost overruns and saw its budget sharply cut last year by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who called the concept "fatally flawed" and destined it for minimal research-and-development.
While the success of the test is a technological triumph, it won't save the airborne laser program from being placed on life support, a defense analyst said.
"The program results are, unfortunately, two years behind the secretary's decision to cancel the program," said Jim McAleese of Mcaleese and Associates, a lawyer and defense consultant in Virginia who is not affiliated with the project.
The laser program was designed to kill missiles at short range. The 2011 budget for the Missile Defense Agency concentrates instead on two ship-based missiles — the Aegis and the SM-3 — that are more useful for regional conflicts involving, say, Iran or North Korea, Mcaleese said.
"As a practical matter, absent something extraordinary, the program has already receded backwards into a technology incubator as opposed to proceeding into production and fielding," he said.
Companies hail test
During Thursday's test, the so-called Airborne Laser Testbed was flown on a modified Boeing 747-400F that took off from Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, Boeing said.
The system used two low-energy lasers to target the missile as it was boosting into the sky from a sea platform, then fired a megawatt-class Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser, or COIL, according to the Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency.
"While ballistic missiles like the one ALTB destroyed move at speeds of about 4,000 miles per hour, they are no match for a superheated, high-energy laser beam racing towards it at 670 million mph," Northrop Grumman Corp. said in a statement. "The basketball-sized beam was focused on the foreign military asset, as the missile is called officially, for only a few seconds before a stress fracture developed, causing the target to catastrophically split into multiple pieces."
"This experiment marks the first time a laser weapon has engaged and destroyed an in-flight ballistic missile, and the first time that any system has accomplished it in the missile's boost phase of flight," Boeing Co. said in a statement. "ALTB has the highest-energy laser ever fired from an aircraft, and is the most powerful mobile laser device in the world."
However, the Air Force said the weapon destroyed a solid-fuel target missile in flight on Feb. 3, although the statement did not provide details. It said the same kind of solid-fuel missile was hit by the laser in a second test Thursday night at Point Mugu but the beam shut off before it could destroy the rocket, the Air Force said.
Much of the research on the program was done in Southern California, which would have benefited economically had the program gone operational.
Traces its origin to ‘Star Wars’
The airborne laser program began in 1996 and is one in a series of missile defense programs that originated in President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 — the much-maligned "Star Wars" missile shoot-down effort that was criticized as impractical, expensive and overreaching.
The airborne laser program itself was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget when the defense secretary decided to cancel money for a second aircraft and opted to shunt the existing weapon into research and development.
"This was supposed to put high-powered lasers on a fleet of 747s," Gates said in a speech last year. "After more than a decade of research and development, we have yet to achieve a laser with enough power to knock down a missile in boost phase more than 50 miles from the launch pad — thus requiring these huge planes to loiter deep in enemy air space to have a feasible shot at a direct hit."
Gates said the program would have needed 10 to 20 operational aircraft at around $1.5 billion each.