Airborne laser fires off

The US Missile Defense Agency has successfully test-fired a megawatt-class laser, marking the first time such a powerful directed energy weapon suitable for use in an airborne environment has been demonstrated.

The US Missile Defense Agency has successfully test-fired a megawatt-class laser built by Northrop Grumman Corporation for the Airborne Laser (ABL) system, marking the first time such a powerful directed energy weapon suitable for use in an airborne environment has been demonstrated.

The ground-based test, referred to as “First Light,” took place November 10 on ABL’s laser testbed at the Systems Integration Laboratory, a special building at Edwards Air Force Base, CA, which houses a modified Boeing 747 freighter fuselage where all elements of the laser system are being assembled and tested.

The test involved the simultaneous firing of all six laser modules and the associated optics that comprise the Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL). The laser systems produced an amount of infrared laser energy that was ‘within pre-test expectations’.

The ABL is the first airborne megawatt-class laser weapon system mounted on a specially configured 747-400F aircraft designed to autonomously detect, track and destroy hostile ballistic missiles during the boost phase.

The high-power laser is coupled with an optical system capable of focusing a basketball-sized spot of heat that can destroy a boosting missile from hundreds of miles away. The laser and optical systems are controlled by a computer system that can simultaneously track and prioritise potential targets.

‘First Light’ is an important milestone because it verifies the integration, operation and control of six laser modules and their associated optics in the flight configuration,’ said Steve Hixson, Northrop Grumman ABL program manager.

‘We look forward to completing the laser’s current ground test program, moving it into the flight aircraft and integrating it with the beam control/fire control system. Completion of those events will move us another significant step closer to shooting down a ballistic missile in flight.’

The ABL program is managed by the Missile Defense Agency and is executed by the US Air Force from Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, NM.

The Boeing Company, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are working with the US Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency to develop ABL. Boeing is responsible for developing the ABL battle management system, integrating the weapon system, and supplying the modified 747-400 freighter aircraft. Lockheed Martin is developing the Beam Control/Fire Control system. Northrop Grumman is providing the complete COIL system.