- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Problem: How to protect the United States, Israel, Japan, Taiwan, NATO other friends and allies, and U.S. military bases all around the world, from ballistic missiles of different ranges, warheads and capabilities, including the multiple warhead type now claimed by Iran? Solution: The Airborne Laser (ABL).

It is the promise of a mobile worldwide defense against a variety of threats that makes development of the ABL important. The Missile Defense Agency has been working on this system for nine years and in 2008 will reach the culmination of that effort with an attempt to shoot down a ballistic missile from an airborne platform.

That platform is a Boeing 747 loaded with lasers that will find a ballistic missile, focus on it, track it through the clouds, and then zap it with a high-powered beam to heat and destroy it in the boost phase, before it can release any warheads and decoys. The whole sequence of events takes just seconds, then the lasers turn to the next target.

The advantages are many. A pair of 747s can fly in a few hours to any trouble spot on Earth, giving this defense mobility and flexibility. The lasers operate with the speed of light, enabling the ABL to destroy multiple missiles with multiple warheads as fast as they can be launched.

The ABL will be a quantum leap in military technology, making science fiction-like beam weapons a reality. The ABL also could use its lasers against enemy aircraft, disabling or destroying them while defending itself. A number of other missions are possible, and some will be tested if the 2008 shoot-down succeeds. But the primary mission is to add a new boost-phase capability to a worldwide missile defense.

The success of the ABL to date has led the Defense Department to start a new effort known as the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL). This summer, flight tests will begin with a smaller C-130H cargo plane, which can fly lower and slower than a 747. It will carry a different set of lasers, including a chemical laser to attack targets on the ground. The ATL could be useful in Iraq and Afghanistan, so its development is moving fast, with demonstrations planned next year against a moving vehicle on the ground and a communications tower.

The ATL’s chemical laser is powerful enough to damage targets on the ground from a low-flying plane, but not nearly as powerful as the ABL’s big chemical oxygen iodine laser. It is designed to reach out over 200 miles, maintain beam focus and stability, and still have enough power to heat a ballistic missile to destruction. Getting that laser beam on a distant target that is moving at increasing speed and keeping it there long enough to cause the missile to rupture is a major challenge.

Still, the program has achieved its milestones over the past two years. In 2004, the high-energy laser had its first light. Last year, it succeeded in generating lethal power, and the beam and fire control systems were tested. Low-power lasers are being used this year for airborne tests against the image of a ballistic missile painted on the side of an Air Force cargo plane flying over White Sands, N.M. Next year, the illuminator lasers will be tested in flight, and then the high-energy laser will be installed in the plane and prepared for the shoot-down.

If the program continues to achieve its goals, the Air Force plans to buy a fleet of seven ABL aircraft, which could be dispatched wherever they are needed. With two ABLs on station, one could be airborne 24 hours a day, neutralizing threats from North Korea, Iran, elsewhere in the Middle East or along the China coast.

The recent announcement by an Iranian general that Tehran has tested a new missile with multiple warheads probably is pure propaganda, but no one can be sure. Iran would be hard-pressed to develop such technology itself, but it exists in Russia and China and could be transferred. Also, former Soviet scientists reportedly have been working in Iran. This makes the ABL, the administration’s primary boost-phase program to defeat multiple warheads and decoys, more urgent than ever.

High-powered lasers are the next big leap in modern warfare. The administration and Congress should provide enough funds to assure that both airborne lasers, the ABL and ATL, are on a fast track for early deployment.

James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times and is based in Carlsbad, Calif.

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