"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
Weight Jeopardizes ABL Test Schedule

December 2002

By Wade Boese

Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, who is in charge of U.S. missile defense programs, raised doubts October 31 about whether the Airborne Laser (ABL) will be ready for its first intercept test, scheduled for 2004. Kadish cited concerns about how the airplane will handle the weight of the laser that is to be installed onboard.

Initiated in 1996, the ABL program calls for equipping a modified Boeing 747 with a laser to shoot down ballistic missiles before they reach space. Although originally conceived as a defense against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, the Pentagon believes the aircraft might also be able to destroy long-range missiles and is seeking to have two or three ABLs available for emergency use between 2006 and 2008.

Kadish told reporters that it is now “crunch time” for the ABL program because the hardware is available and must be assembled to see if the components can operate together. Yet, he cautioned that there are always “inevitable problems” at this stage of a program.

Kadish highlighted accommodating the laser’s weight on the plane as a key challenge. He said that the airplane’s ability to carry the weight is not an issue but that the distribution of that weight could be a problem.

The components of the laser that generate its energy, the modules, are to be situated at the rear of the plane. Each module weighs approximately 7,000 pounds, and Pentagon plans ultimately envision a 14-module laser on future aircraft, although program officials said that many modules might not be necessary and that the first aircraft will only be equipped with a six-module laser. Nevertheless, Kadish explained, “Stuffing all those things in the back end of the airplane causes a weight problem.”

Kadish expressed confidence that the weight issue could be handled, but he also suggested that it might slow the program down and delay the first intercept attempt. “I don’t think we can pin [the intercept test] down specifically with as much certainty as I’d like until we get through next spring with the efforts at putting the airplane together,” Kadish said.

In response to questions on Kadish’s remarks, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) contended that currently the modules are within acceptable weight limits. “Weight distribution is important because we cannot exceed the floor load capability or aircraft shear. For the current ‘Block 2004’ aircraft, we are within limits for both floor load and shear,” an MDA spokesperson said.

After conducting successful trial flights of the plane without the laser this past summer, program officials are now incrementally installing and testing components of the laser and other hardware on the plane at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The installation work is expected to take almost two years.