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YAL-1A Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB)
Airborne Laser

Background History

The United States had pursued a variety of ballistic missile defense concepts and programs since the 1950s. In the 1970s, some attention was focused on directed energy weapons, such as high-powered lasers, for the purposes of missile defense. The Department of Defense (DOD) has been a strong advocate for the predecessor programs to the ABL.

The United States had sought to develop and deploy ballistic missile defenses for more than 50 years. National Missile Defense has been a divisive political and national security issue. The primary technological concept for missile defense since the early 1980s had been 'hit-to-kill' interceptor missiles, but other alternatives have also been pursued. Laser technology and the platforms on which lasers might be based is has been such an alternative. The effort that led to the Airborne Laser dates to the early 1970s when the Air Force began development of an Airborne Laser Laboratory (ALL) - a modified KC-135A aircraft - to demonstrate that a high-powered laser mounted on an aircraft platform could destroy an attacking missile. After ten years of research, development, and field testing (culminating in 1983) the ALL program announced that lasers had managed to "destroy or defeat" five AIM-9 series Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and a simulated "cruise missile" (a BQM-34A target drone) at short range. The ALL aircraft was retired in 1984 because its research purpose was considered no longer necessary.

Although the ALL test targets were not ballistic missiles, the Air Force and the Defense Department became increasingly interested in the possibility of using highpowered lasers aboard aircraft to destroy enemy ballistic missiles during their boost phase.

In the mid-1980s and into the early 1990s, Congress reacted by reducing requested missile defense budgets and providing legislative language to guide the development of missile defense programs and policy. Many in Congress appeared more concerned than the Defense Department and the military about near-term threats to forward-deployed US military forces posed by shorter range ballistic missiles. Congress demonstrated those concerns by supporting the development and deployment of theater missile defenses (TMD), oftentimes over the objections of the Defense Department. Operation Desert Storm exposed a distinct lack of ability to respond to theatre ballistic missile threats by US forces. The only deployed system during that conflict was the MIM-104 Patriot, which achieved mixed results against ballistic missiles fired by Iraqi forces, and even then could only engage them in the terminal stages of their flight path.

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Page last modified: 24-02-2012 19:20:37 ZULU