Laser joins anti-ballistic arsenal

The world’s most powerful airborne laser capable of shooting down a ballistic missile is being re-assembled by Northrop Grumman and the US Missile Defence Agency (MDA).

The laser is being integrated onto MDA’s Airborne Laser (ABL). High-power system testing will follow completion.

The ABL, a modified 747-400F supplied by Boeing, will be the first combat aircraft to rely entirely upon a directed energy device as a weapon.

It is designed to use directed energy to destroy a ballistic missile target shortly after it is launched during its ‘boost phase’ of flight, when it is considered to be the most vulnerable. When operational, the ABL will be an integral part of a layered Ballistic Missile Defence System.

The integration is taking place at Edwards Air Force Base, California. A refurbishment had involved the disassembly and inspection of the high-energy Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) after successful ground tests in 2005.

During those tests, the laser demonstrated repeatability of sufficient power and duration to shoot down a ballistic missile.

Guy Renard, Northrop Grumman’s ABL programme manager, said most of the COIL components showed little degradation after the laser was fired more than 70 times in previous ground tests.

Re-assembly of the megawatt-class laser will continue in 2008 and will be followed by ground and flight-testing of the integrated weapon system, culminating in the shootdown of a boosting missile planned in August 2009.

Earlier this year The Engineer reported that Boeing had successfully fired ABL’s track illuminator laser at a target to gather tracking data.

Reassembly: the laser is being integrated into the ABL