Airborne Laser Mothballed

Tom Z. Collina and Kelsey Davenport

After 16 years and $5 billion, the Airborne Laser, once touted as “America’s first light saber,” has been canceled.

The program’s laser-armed aircraft, or Airborne Laser Test Bed (ALTB), has been placed into long-term storage at a facility informally known as the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Nevertheless, according to a Feb. 14 Missile Defense Agency (MDA) press release, the agency is continuing to develop electric lasers “to significantly reduce the complexity and cost of future directed energy weapons.”

The MDA’s fiscal year 2013 budget request includes plans for removing and demilitarizing the ALTB’s hardware, but no further testing or data collection is planned. The budget documents state that due to limited funding, ALTB test flights and data collection were completed in fiscal year 2012 and the aircraft was prepared for permanent storage. In a Jan. 4 e-mail to Arms Control Today, MDA spokesman Richard Lehner said that the drawdown of the program began last October.

The ALTB aircraft was designed to use two solid-state lasers and a megawatt-class chemical oxygen-iodine laser mounted on a Boeing 747-400F to track and destroy ballistic missiles in flight. It had to face numerous operational challenges, such as the need to fly above hostile territory waiting for target missiles to be launched and to focus its laser at a single point on a moving missile.

The ALTB program, which began in 1996, nearly ended in 2009 when the Pentagon scaled it back to a research program and deeply cut its funding. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the development of a second airplane, saying he didn’t “know anybody at the Department of Defense who thinks that this program should, or would, ever be operationally deployed.”

In February 2010, the ALTB tracked and destroyed a missile for the first time. (See ACT, March 2010.) Two subsequent tests in September and October 2010 failed to destroy the target missiles. In July 2011, the ALTB completed the first laser tracking of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

In the Jan. 4 e-mail, Lehner said that the MDA would collect key ALTB data that are applicable to a “next generation airborne directed energy system for missile defense applications.” The budget request for directed energy research stated that the MDA would shift to “the next generation Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Laser technology” and maintain the skills necessary for the “next generation directed energy platform development.”

Specifically, the Obama administration requests $44.5 million for fiscal year 2013 for directed energy research, $1.7 million below the amount that Congress provided in 2012 for the program. According to budget documents, plans for fiscal year 2013 funding include the exploration of new laser technologies for missile defense.

In a Dec. 12 speech in Huntsville, Ala., MDA Director Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly announced that the agency was “within a few years” of a prototype laser operated out of an unattended air vehicle.

Missile Defense Spending Down

Overall, the fiscal year 2013 budget would provide $9.7 billion for ballistic missile defense, down $700 million, or 7 percent, from the $10.4 billion that Congress appropriated for the current fiscal year. Total projected funding is $47.4 billion from 2013 to 2017. This total does not include $950 million in fiscal year 2013 for the Space Based Infrared System-High satellite program.

The missile defense budget includes $903 million for operating 30 ground-based interceptor (GBI) missiles in Alaska and California as part of the Boeing-operated system to protect the United States from limited ballistic missile attacks, primarily from North Korea. The missiles failed in their last two intercept tests, in January and December 2010. The MDA has completed a Failure Review Board investigation of the causes and has recommended fixes, but has not publicly released its report. The next test, called FTG-06b, is planned for sometime in 2012. The MDA plans to have 52 GBI missiles by 2017.

The budget also includes $1.5 billion for the European Phased Adaptive Approach, designed to protect NATO allies from a potential ballistic missile attack, most notably from Iran. The Defense Department said it met its objectives for phase 1 of the European system by deploying one Aegis-equipped ship for ballistic missile defense armed with Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IA missiles and a land-based AN/TPY-2 radar in Turkey last year. The next three phases include SM-3 Block IB deployments in Romania in 2015, SM-3 Block IIA deployments in Poland in 2018, and the addition of SM-3 Block IIB interceptors in 2020 with the capability for “early intercept” of “non-advanced” ICBMs. The MDA would continue converting Aegis-equipped ships, with 32 ships planned for conversion by fiscal year 2017, and buy almost 400 SM-3 interceptors by that year.

The Pentagon also announced that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) intermediate-range missile interceptor program would be restructured “due to changing priorities and funding constraints.” The proposed revamping reduces the total number of interceptors from 333 to 180 in fiscal years 2013-2017, cutting the budget by $1.8 billion over that period to $2.8 billion, according to budget documents.