The key to stopping missile attacks is to be able to target and destroy the missiles in the boost phase of their flight before they can reach the target and cause untold damage. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency has been testing the Airborne Laser (ABL) system for several years now.
Boeing announced recently that it had successfully completed the first ground firing of the ABL high-energy laser through the beam control/fire control system. The test was conducted at Edwards Air Force Base and the beam traveled through the fire control system and exited at the nose mounted turret of the aircraft.
Boeing announced in September that it had completed the first test firing of the laser, but the beam was captured by an onboard calorimeter rather than exiting the aircraft. The ground test last week targeted and directed the laser beam from the aircraft to a simulated missile.
Scott Fancher, VP and general manager of Boeing missile Defense Systems said in a statement, "This test is significant because it demonstrated that the Airborne Laser missile defense program has successfully integrated the entire weapon system aboard the ABL aircraft. With the achievement of the first firing of the laser aboard the aircraft in September, the team has now completed the two major milestones it hoped to accomplish in 2008, keeping ABL on track to conduct the missile shootdown demonstration planned for next year."
The next step for the testing program according to Michael Rinn, Boeing VP and ABL program director is an additional series of longer duration laser firings through the beam control/fire system. Rinn said in a statement, "Once we complete those tests, we will begin demonstrating the entire weapon system in flight. The team is meeting its commitment to deliver this transformational directed-energy weapon system in the near term."
The first test of the high-power laser for the ABL system was conducted in 2005 at the System Integration Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base. The Boeing ABL system was declared ready for flight tests in 2006. The ABL is installed aboard a modified Boeing 747-400F. The ground tests conducted at the time verified the optical alignment of the components that guide the laser to a target among other things. The first in flight test for the ABL was originally slated for 2008, that test is now expected to happen in 2009.
Boeing is also working on a very similar project called the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL). The ATL is designed to be used offensively, whereas the ABL is for defensively destroying missiles. Boeing claims that the ATL is capable of supernatural accuracy and can destroy weapons very near bystanders without causing them harm.
The ATL has been fired from aboard the modified C130 gunship it is housed in, but the laser beam was captured by an onboard calorimeter. The ground firing was conducted in May 2008 with further testing to be conducted. The weapon system is claimed to be able to engage and destroy a massive amount of enemy hardware in convoy in only a 26-second engagement.