MDA Tests Laser Amid Budget Cutbacks

Eben W. Lindsey

The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) last month successfully tested the tracking components of the Airborne Laser (ABL) system, the agency announced June 15. The tests, which took place June 6 and June 13, mark the first time the ABL system successfully detected and tracked a missile in the boost phase. These tests come amid a series of decisions reducing or eliminating the funding for some missile defense programs.

The ABL is a modified Boeing 747-400F jumbo jet designed to detect, track, and ultimately destroy ballistic missiles during their boost phase, before they have exited Earth's atmosphere. The ABL system was designed to patrol in pairs, utilizing infrared sensors to detect a missile's plume. Once the missile is detected, two low-power, solid-state lasers track the missile and compensate for atmospheric disturbances; a high-power chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) then destroys the missile before it exits the atmosphere. According to the press release, the MDA plans to continue testing the tracking system against progressively more difficult targets before carrying out a complete demonstration later this year, when the ABL system will track and destroy a ballistic missile in boost phase.

The ABL system is one of two boost-phase missile defense systems originally planned by the MDA. The other is the ground-based Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI). The Department of Defense's fiscal year 2010 budget request does not include funding for the KEI, which was originally developed by the Northrop Grumman Corp. and has received $1.2 billion in funding. The fiscal year 2010 request for the ABL system was $186.7 million, down $214.1 million from the fiscal year 2009 appropriation. (See ACT, June 2009.) The Defense Department plans to use the ABL currently being tested as a "technology demonstrator" and eliminate funding for a second ABL prototype, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee May 14. Funding that had been designated for the second aircraft now will be used for the technology demonstration, he said.

The MDA press release uses the term "prototype" to refer to the existing aircraft, but an MDA spokesperson said nothing should be read into that terminology. The ABL that was tested is a technology demonstrator, "and no additional aircraft are proposed or planned," he said in a June 25 e-mail.

The limited range of the ABL's laser components makes their use in the field tactically unrealistic, Gates said in his testimony. To make proper use of the ABL in the field, 20 of them would have to fly in close orbit of a country suspected of preparing a missile launch, he said.

With funding for the KEI canceled and the ABL project relegated to the role of technology demonstrator, the MDA has no active programs focused on intercepting ballistic missiles in their boost phase. Current programs focus on better-understood technology, such as the AEGIS ballistic missile defense system, a sea-based system that targets missiles during the ascent and descent portions of the midcourse phase, and the land-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, which can intercept missiles in their terminal phase as they re-enter the atmosphere.

In total, $9.3 billion has been requested for missile defense programs in President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2010 budget, a reduction of $1.2 billion from the previous year. Gates has said he is reorganizing the missile defense effort to focus more on terminal-phase defenses, which are designed to intercept a missile after it re-enters the atmosphere. (See ACT, May 2009.)