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Air Force News

Development of airborne laser gives Air Force futuristic weapon

Released: 22 Oct 1998

by Staff Sgt. Tom Mullican
Air Combat Command Public Affairs

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. (AFPN) -- The airborne laser will give the Air Force a weapon that looks like something out of a science fiction movie.

"The airborne laser is purely Buck Rogers stuff - k ill them with light," said Gen. Dick Hawley, Air Combat Command commander. "We're going to put a very powerful COIL laser on a 747 airplane. It's going to fly around 40,000 feet, survey enemy territory, look for theater ballistic missiles as they're climbing up out of the launch pad, and shoot them down."

When a theater ballistic missile is identified, a nondestructive laser is fired at the missile to determine how far away the missile is, how fast it's climbing, and measure the atmospheric turbulence that exists between the aircraft and target.

A set of computers on the aircraft will process the information, and tell the airplane systems how to deform the destructive laser beam it's going to fire. So, when the beam passes through the air, it will still be a coherent beam when it gets to the target hundreds of miles away, said Hawley.

A targeting system on the aircraft will hold the beam on that missile and burn a hole in it while it's still boosting. "When we put a hole in that missile it's going to blow up because, all of a sudden, all of that pressure's going out the hole we make rather then out the back end of the missile," said Hawley.

"What's going to happen is the warhead that missile was trying to deliver against targets in our territory is going to fall right back down on their territory," the general said. "So if they were firing chemical or biological munitions or a nuclear warhead at us, they'd better think twice because they've got a high risk of it falling back in their lap. That's what the airborne laser's going to do for us."

The ABL will be part of a system of systems to defend against theater ballistic missiles. The other systems like Theater High Altitude Area Defense systems, "are area defense systems that sit back deep in our territory protecting important elements of our force structure," said Hawley. "They're designed to intercept that missile as it's coming down towards the target, destroy it so that it doesn't impact the target.

"What we'll do with the airborne laser is kill those missiles forward. We'll be part of a defense in depth," said the general. "The laser will be the forward part of that defense, intercepting those missiles early in their boost phase, and killing a lot of them even in a robust attack. It will be able to destroy multiple missiles."

The ABL is becoming a reality for the Air Force. In June, the ABL's performance and design package was tested.

"The results (of the test) so far have been very encouraging," said Hawley. "We've demonstrated that the flight-weighted laser module can generate the kind of power that we need. They've demonstrated at 110 percent of the specified power."

The next step for the ABL is to put it on an airplane.

"So the next step is to integrate this thing in an airplane -- put it on a 747 -- go fly it, and then test it in different environments, and prove that it really works," said the general. "We plan to shoot down a theater ballistic missile in 2002. So within four years -- if the Congress funds the program appropriately -- we'll be able to show whether or not this technology is going to be there for us."

If the technology proves out, the Air Force plans to purchase seven 747s by 2007. "As compared to some of the procurement programs that we've got going today, it's pretty cheap," said Hawley. "The remarkable thing is the cost per kill once you invent it and invest it in the basic platform. It's going to cost us about $1,000 a shot to destroy these theater ballistic missiles." The cost is for the laser fuel.

"When you compare that against the cost of a THAAD or Patriot missile, it's insignificant. This is going to be a tremendously cost-effective weapon system. The expendables are almost free." (Courtesy of ACC News Service)

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