Missile Defense Laser-Equipped 747 Test Successful

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On Aug. 18, a high-power chemical oxygen iodine laser mated to a modified Boeing 747-400F and beam/fire control system designed together to destroy ballistic missiles in boost phase was fired for the first time in flight. The next steps will include more airborne tests before a missile shoot-down demonstration. For the test flight, which launched out of Edwards AFB Tuesday, the laser was fired into an on-board calorimeter, which both captured the beam and measured its power. Team leaders hope that if the program is successful, it will usher in a new era for weapon systems. "We think ABL (airborne laser) will be a game-changer for weapon systems the same way stealth technology transformed aerial combat," Michael Rinn, Boeing vice president and ABL program director, said in a news release. If it progresses as planned, the test regimen will soon ramp up to firing the beam through the aircraft's advanced control/fire control system. That would mark "the first time a megawatt-class laser has been coupled with precise pointing and atmospheric correction in an airborne environment," according to Boeing. Following that progressively comes the more challenging target practice.

Firing tests will gradually step up to more difficult targets and will culminate in the airborne intercept of a ballistic missile in the boost phase of flight. The idea is to destroy the missiles before they are able to launch decoys and at a location where they will potentially fall back to or explode over their launch coordinates as opposed to their target coordinates. The laser itself has been designed by Northrop Grumman, while Lockheed Martin has developed the beam control method and firing system. Boeing hopes the device will succeed in its original goals and also use the aircraft to defend against aircraft, cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles. The Obama administration cut funding for a second ABL aircraft in its fiscal 2010 defense budget.