The US Air Force and a number of military contractors have successfully test-fired the first aircraft-based military laser system called the “Airborne Laser” (or ABL). Airborne Laser? Looking at the laser-touting Boeing 747 above, you’d think the USAF would have come up with a more imaginative name… Like, “Project Lightning Strike“, “Winged Overlord” or “Delta Echo Alpha Tango Hotel (DEATH)“. There’s probably some military call-sign, but on reading about the ABL, I found myself a little bored of the concept until I saw the finished product…
With every technological advance yields a new military application. In this case, a new, high-powered (megawatt) laser has been housed inside a Boeing 747 for the first time. Although aerial tests are pending (and likely in 2009), the ABL has taken the first step on the road to realisation. At the end of November, it performed a static test, firing twice (in one second bursts) from its 747 mount. According to sources, it appears to be working well.
So, why do we need a 747 to get this thing in the air? The ABL is so big, it literally fills a customised airliner, with no room for passengers. It also enlists the help of orbiting spy satellites to seek out and detect the initial heat signature of a launching intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The ICBM threat was more synonymous with the Cold War, but with the degradation of the Soviet Union, defence contractors have had to be a little more “creative” with the possible uses of a flying laser. While spokespeople for the project are adamant a nuclear strike from a “rogue nation” or (very) well-funded terrorist group remains a possibility, there’s been a lot of “out of the box” thinking to justify the huge, multi-billion dollar budget the ABL has consumed.
The laughable claims by the Pentagon that the ABL could be used for non-lethal purposes (i.e. melting military convoy tires, melting satellite dishes, giving protesters excessive sunburn) have provoked anger in some quarters. The ABL is clearly a military weapon that will be used to destroy enemy units. And, it will be used with impunity as there are currently no international laws governing the lethal use of lasers in the theatre of combat (although the use of low powered blinding lasers are not allowed, as that’s deemed unfair).
The ABL’s primary function will be to destroy ballistic missile threats, and possibly, take out enemy spy satellites. Although orbital space lasers don’t appear to be a priority any more, we are starting to see some very heavy-duty airborne lasers appear.
What with the ABL and the development of the aptly named Multiple Kill Vehicle, it would seem that the ICBM threat could be on the verge of becoming obsolete. But does this mean the world will be a safer place? I doubt it. The thought of weaponized lasers destroying targets on the horizon is a worrying notion…
For more on the ABL, check out my article on the Universe Today: From “Star Wars” to “Sky Wars” in Development of Aircraft-based Anti-Missile Laser.