- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

Imagine an airplane loaded with lasers and sensors flying lazy figure-8s more than 40,000 feet above the borders of a hostile state. Suddenly, far inland a missile is fired. The launch is spotted by a battery of six infrared search and track sensors on board the plane. The sensors track the missile until it breaks through the clouds. Then the lasers leap into action.
A ranging laser figures the distance to the target, an illuminator laser locates it, a beam control laser focuses, and then the high-energy laser fires a powerful beam that reaches out more than 200 miles to put intense heat on the missile. Seconds later the missile explodes, and the Airborne Laser (ABL) looks for its next target.
Science fiction? Maybe so, but it is quickly becoming fact. After six years of work on the program, the first ABL aircraft, a modified Boeing 747, is at Edwards Air Force Base in California waiting for the lasers to be installed. They are being assembled in a separate 747 fuselage, where they will undergo thorough testing before being installed in the plane.
The Air Force began the ABL program as a solution to the technically difficult job of shooting down a ballistic missile in the boost phase. Boost phase intercept, during the first 90-300 seconds of flight, depending on the missile's range, is at once the easiest and most difficult way to stop a ballistic missile easy because the missile is full of fuel and traveling slowly; difficult because the launch occurs in hostile territory and will be heavily defended.
The ABL is potentially the most effective technology currently being developed for use against missiles in an area near the coast, such as North Korea. With a lethal laser range in excess of 200 miles, the 747 could remain outside North Korean airspace and still be within reach of almost any launch site inside the country. The ABL also will be effective against cruise missiles, other airborne threats, and even intercontinental missiles. And the high-power laser provides excellent self-defense.
During December's midcourse missile defense flight test, the 747 tested its sensors against the target intercontinental ballistic missile with "spectacular" results, according to missile defense officials. The ABL picked up the launch from a considerable distance and tracked the missile with clarity and precision. Even without its lasers, the ABL is an important airborne sensor, able to conduct wide-area surveillance against missiles of all types and ranges.
A big 747 is needed to carry the large chemical plant that produces the high-powered laser beam. But the 747 also provides the advantage of being able to fly at high altitude and stay on station for many hours. The high-energy laser is a Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) that produces a multimegawatt infrared beam. It heats the skin of its target missile to some 460 degrees centigrade, causing it to rupture. The plane has a sophisticated beam-control system with adaptive optic mirrors that point the beam to the missile miles away and hold it on the moving target.
Once all components have been installed in the plane and integrated, testing will begin against objects towed by aircraft and dropped from balloons. Intercept tests against Scud-type missiles are to begin in 2004. The Air Force believes this first Airborne Laser could be used in a crisis as early as the end of next year. That may be too late for Iraq, but not for North Korea.
The ideal regional missile defense will combine the capabilities of ABL sensors and lasers with space-based sensors, Aegis ships, and land-based defenses to create the synergy of a layered defense of a threatened area such as Taiwan, Japan, South Korea or Israel. Israel already is testing layered defenses by coordinating its Arrow and Patriot interceptors with a U.S. Aegis cruiser offshore in the Mediterranean. The ABL will be an important addition to such regional defenses.
If all goes well, the Pentagon will buy seven ABLs, which would be enough to provide 24-hour coverage of North Korea, Iraq, or wherever the threat may be. The Air Force considers the Airborne Laser a "transformational" weapon that could revolutionize missile defense. Missiles will lose their value if they can be shot down with the speed of light on the heads of those who are launching them.
Several decades ago the Navy put a nuclear power plant in a submarine, which led to the strategic naval force that has become the mainstay of the nuclear deterrent. Putting a large chemical laser plant in an airplane is a similar engineering challenge, but it could have an equally important impact on the national security.

James Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times and is based in San Diego.


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