747 airliner? Check. Huge laser? Check. Huge-flying-missile-melting-laser? Nearly.
Actually, I’d want to fly the aircraft remotely, unmanned, and fire the oversized laser pointer at the 747 from a distance. Just to see how long it would take to melt. But that’s just me.
Boeing on the other hand, has succeeded in building a flying laser. Toward the end of 2008, the Airborne Laser (ABL) had been installed inside its Boeing 747 host and it was undergoing static tests. Sure enough, the megawatt laser had proven its worth and fired at a target, twice, in one-second bursts. Details are sketchy as to the damage the ABL caused, but Boeing and other US military contractors heralded the test as a success (if you ask me, the target probably looked like this afterwards).
On April 21st, the fully laden Boeing 747-400F aircraft completed its functional check flight carrying the beam control/fire control system and the high-energy laser on board. In short, the aircraft is ready, and it’s flying. Now we just have to wait for the first missile-intercept demonstration later in the year.
“With ABL’s return to flight, we are on the verge of fully demonstrating the unprecedented speed, mobility, precision and lethality that ABL could provide to America’s warfighters,” said Michael Rinn, Boeing vice president and ABL program director.
Although it all sounds like a military
wet dream dream come true, the development of the ABL has come at a high cost. Twelve years of development and $4.2 billion later, we finally have a flying laser. And what’s the point? To take out ICBMs just as they are launched by rogue states or terrorist organizations.
I can envisage the ABL having a use in patrolling the North Korean borders, but Boeing first needs to prove they can lock on and destroy an accelerating target from several miles distant. “There’s nothing like flaming missile wreckage to show the world the system is viable and that it works,” the ABL developer proudly stated in December 2008. After all, even a missile can’t outrun a megawatt laser beam ripping through the skies at the speed of light.
Destroying ballistic missile just after launch will be the ABL’s bread and butter. The US missile defence system is multi-layered, so a flying laser would be considered to be at the front line (it would be the first weapon available to take a shot after the detection of an ICBM launch). There is also the possibility that the ABL could provide aerial coverage for military units, melting enemy vehicles, other aircraft or surface-to-air missiles.
After a long period of development, it looks like the ABL is finally being realized. All the components appear to be working, so let’s see if the airborne laser can track and destroy a launching missile when in flight…
Update: According to CNET, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates signalled at the beginning of April that the ABL project would be cancelled, despite recent progress:
“We will cancel the second Airborne Laser Prototype Aircraft. We’ll keep the existing aircraft and shift the program to an R&D effort. The ABL program has significant affordability and technology problems, and the program’s proposed operational role is highly questionable.” — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates