Lower the Curtain on the Airborne Laser

By Matt Sugrue

The Airborne Laser (ABL) missile defense system failed its second shoot-down test in a row yesterday. The Missile Defense Agency, which oversees the ABL program, released a statement saying that investigators are looking at the "intermittent performance of a valve within the laser system" as a possible source of the failure.

The ABL is a modified Boeing 747 that was designed to use a powerful chemical oxygen-iodine laser to disrupt ballistic missiles during their boost phase. Currently, there is only one ABL and it is unlikely that any additional ones will be built. In a 2009 speech outlining budget decisions for FY 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cancelled plans for a second plane and relegated the existing ABL to a research and development project, stating:

The ABL program has significant affordability and technology problems and the program's proposed operational role is highly questionable.

Even if the numerous technical difficulties associated with the ABL are corrected, an airplane with a laser strapped to its nose is of questionable utility as an operational missile defense system.

As Victoria Samson points out in American Missile Defense, the limited range of the laser, between 300-600 km, means that Russia, China, and Iran are beyond the ABL's operational capability. North Korea is the correct size, but the ABL would have to be in constant flight around the country to catch a ballistic missile in the boost phase. In addition, Pyongyang would have to play fair "and only launch one missile at a time, since the ABL has not been tested nor is intended to be used against a salvo of missiles."

In March, the Government Accountability Office reported that between 1996 and February 2010 the ABL cost around $5.1 billion dollars. So far, the ABL is 1 for 3 in shoot-down tests.

Whenever the topic of the ABL is raised, I cannot help but be reminded of the Oak Island Money Pit.

Off the southern coast of Nova Scotia is the Oak Island Money Pit. As its name suggests the Money Pit is a hole in the ground that supposedly contains buried treasure at the bottom. Since its discovery in the late 1700s, various people have excavated the Money Pit to a depth of around 200 feet. Over the years, people have sunk millions of dollars into equipment, worked around cave-ins, dealt with catastrophic flooding, and even died trying to discover the legendary treasure.

Of course no one has actually discovered treasure, but some people always find enough enigmatic signs to convince themselves and the next person that they will uncover the treasure if only they invest a few more dollars.

Who knows, one day they may discover an operational Airborne Laser under all the muck.