Boeing, with the US Missile Defense Agency and industry partners, has successfully completed an Airborne Laser (ABL) flight test, demonstrating its ability to track and hit a target in flight.

The modified Boeing 747-400F took off from Edwards Air Force Base, California, and demonstrated the weapon system’s ability to use infrared sensors and its track illuminator laser (TILL) to find and track an instrumented target board on the US Air Force’s NC-135E Big Crow test aircraft. The Big Crow fired its beacon laser at the ABL aircraft to allow the ABL to measure and compensate for laser beam distortion caused by the atmosphere.

The ABL then fired a surrogate high-energy laser (SHEL) at the Big Crow target board to simulate a missile shootdown. The flight test did not demonstrate the ABL’s beacon illuminator laser (BILL).

When the ABL was tested in March, it passively tracked a simulated missile plume when it fired the TILL at the Big Crow target board. This latest test, however, demonstrated the ABL’s ability to actively track the target by ‘walking’ the TILL beam to the nose of the missile and using the TILL light returning from the edge of the missile to determine where to point the SHEL on the target.

In upcoming flight tests, ABL will use the return from its BILL instead of the Big Crow’s beacon laser to measure atmospheric distortion. The program will then install Northrop Grumman’s high-energy chemical laser in the aircraft to prepare for the first test against an airborne ballistic missile in 2009.

Northrop Grumman also supplied the beacon illuminator laser, while Lockheed Martin provided the nose-mounted turret and the beam control/fire control system, and Boeing provided the modified aircraft and battle management system.