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

Program History

In May 1994, two contracts were awarded to develop fully operational ABL weapon system concepts and then derive ABL PDRR Program concepts that are fully traceable and scaleable EMD. A single contract team was selected to proceed with the development of the chosen PDRR concept beginning in November 1996. The objective of the PDRR phase was to develop a cost effective, flexible airborne high energy laser system which provided a credible deterrent and lethal defensive capability against boosting theater ballistic missiles. The ABL PDRR Program was intended to show high confidence system performance scalable to Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) levels. The PDRR Program included the design, development, integration, and testing of an airborne high-energy laser weapon system.

Successful development and testing of the laser module was one of the critical 'exit criteria' that Team ABL had to satisfy was in order pass the program's first 'authority-to-proceed' (ATP-1) milestone, and was completed in 1998 with the laser producing 10% more power than required. Testing of the laser module was expected to be completed by April 1998. The PDRR detailed design, integration, and test was planned to culminate in a lethality demonstration in 2002. A follow-on Engineering Manufacturing and Development/Production (EMD) effort could then begin in the early 2003 time frame. A fleet of fully operational EMD systems was intended to satisfy Air Combat Command's boost-phase Theater Air Defense requirements. There was speculation that if planned milestones were consistantly met, a fleet of seven ABLs whould be flying operational missions by 2008.

The ABL was declared a Major Defense Acquisition Program in 1996. Performance requirements for the Airborne Laser Weapons System were established by the operational scenarios and support requirements defined by the user, Air Combat Command, and by measured target vulnerability characteristics provided by the Air Force lethality and vulnerability community centered at the Phillips Laboratory. The ABL PDRR Program was supported by a robust technology insertion and risk reduction program to provide early confidence that scaling to EMD performance was feasible. The technology and concept design efforts provided key answers to the PDRR design effort in the areas of lethality, atmospheric characterization, beam control, aircraft systems integration, and environmental concerns. These efforts were the source of necessary data applied to exit criteria ensuring that higher and higher levels of confidence were progressively reached at key milestones of the PDRR development.

In October of 2001 management of the program was transfered from Air Combat Command to the Missile Defense Agency, ending its status as a MDAP. The key issues in the program have been effective range of the laser and systems integration of a Boeing 747 aircraft. The prototype ABL aircraft, dubbed the YAL-1A, made its first flight in July 2002. Development efforts were focused on integrating the system's sophisticated laser and tracking elements on board the airframe to support a planned intercept of a threat-representative short-range ballistic missile over the Pacific Ocean in late 2004.

As of late 2002, it appeared that the Airborne Laser's first missile intercept test, scheduled for the fourth quarter of calendar year 2004, would be postponed due to hardware problems. This lethality demonstration had been scheduled for 2003, but by early 2002 had slipped to the first quarter of FY05.

The ABL has been developed in capability based blocks. Under the FY04 budget plan released earlier in 2003, the MDA intendeded to continue ground testing of the first ABL aircraft, conduct the first flight of the complete ABL Block 2004 weapons system, and proceed toward a lethality demonstration in 2004-2005. In April 2003 the MDA awarded a cost-plus-award-fee contract to Boeing in support of the Airborne Laser Block 2008 effort. The period of performance for this initial phase of the program was from April 2003 through March 31, 2004, the MDA said. The value of the contract award was not to exceed $118 million, according to the MDA.

The first YAL-1A Block 2004 aircraft was designed as a prototype rather than an operational asset. Although it was planned to have a limited lethal capability for contingencies, much of the support equipment to generate the chemical laser's fuel at forward bases was not expected to be available until around 2006. Block 2006 utilized the first prototype aircraft. The primary goals were integration of the various systems onto the aircraft, ground and flight tests of the prototype aircraft and laser test bed. Program officials also hoped to improve domestic production capability of necessary components during the Block 2006 phase.

As of 2004 the program had been concentrating on activities associated with getting "first light" through six fully integrated laser modules, and integrating the beam control system. All Block 2004 efforts are focused on achieving a successful, live shoot-down of a ballistic missile during FY05.

In an attempt to demonstrate system performance by FY2005, the Block 2004 program delayed some integration and testing until after the ballistic missile shoot-down. For example, integration and testing of the Active Ranger System was scheduled to occur after the shoot-down.

The program has also reorganized the HEL Lethal Edge Irradiance characterization, reducing the number of tests and engagement geometries required prior to the ballistic missile shoot-down. This limited the amount of data available through FY05, for extrapolating ABL's negation capabilities against other missile threat classes. HEL beam characterization flight tests were to be re-planned to the degree possible after the shoot-down event. Characterization of the HEL beam would continue in the Block 2006 test program to increase understanding of ABL lethality.

A thorough lethality test program was planned in the Block 2006 program but was not completely funded. The plan looked to address primary negation parameters and included the procurement of about a dozen targets, their engagement flight tests, and the necessary preliminary lab and flight testing. It was expected that the execution of this plan, combined with good HEL beam characterization, would result in a thorough understanding of ABL's negation capabilities under a range of conditions and threats.

The second ABL aircraft, the YAL-1A Block 2008, was planned to contain a more powerful laser, incorporate other hardware and software refinements and have the support infrastructure to operate at forward bases. In addition, the higher-than-expected power output of the laser modules would have meant fewer will be needed on the aircraft than originally thought. A planned evaluation of additional ballistic missile threats, finalization of the system design, and fabrication of weapon components utilizing the second prototype were referred to as Block 2010.

In March 2007 the US Government Accountability Office released a report assessing 62 specific weapon systems including the ABL. The planned lethality test had been delayed until FY09, based on the fact that none of the seven critical technologies had matured. These technologies were defined as: the six module laser, missile tracking, atmospheric compensation, transmissive optics, optical coatings, jitter control, and high power beam management. Jitter control, a key technology that assures aircraft vibration does not significantly affect the aim point of the laser, was declared as nearly mature. The management of the high power beam was previously declared to be mature, but was reassessed as nearly mature because of a lack of testing in a "realistic environment." Testing problems had further pushed back the lethality demonstration despite optimism that it might have been possible by late 2008. However, inflight testing of the Track Illuminator laser was conducted on 15 March 2007, with a YAL-1A "firing" the laser at a NC-135E "Big Crow" special test aircraft configured as a target.

The proposed 2009 lethality test was planned to include:

  • To demonstrate an actual shoot-down of a missile over the Pacific Ocean, possibly a Scud missile
  • To test the IRST (the Infrared Search & Track System), to see if the ABL can find, hold and track the intended target
  • To demonstrate that the adaptive optics systems is able to compensate for atmospheric distortion

It was suggested that the outcome of the lethality had the potential to decide the overall future of the program. That it had been delayed at significant cost implied to many observers that the technological complexity of the ABL might question its near term usefulness.

As of FY06 delays had led to cost overruns of approximately $49 million, and an inability to complete an additional $23 million in planned work. Cost overruns were caused in part by a variety of laser components being canceled or declared deficient and were cited by the GAO as potentially being responsible for the aircraft's laser only achieving 83 percent of the desired power during testing. Once the deficiencies are resolved the laser will be retested and it is believed that the full expected power will be achieved.

The same GAO report stated that limited production of prototype components was being completed, but the ability to mass produce the components had not been assessed because the MDA had not yet decided whether or not to produce the system. The stability of the design given the various delays was also not assessed because of the fact that none of the component technologies were fully developed. It is hoped that a demonstrated capability will be available by Block 2016. The known cost by 2011 was estimated to be $6,435.6 million just in research and development.

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Page last modified: 24-02-2012 19:20:38 ZULU