ABL Survival

By John Liang / April 3, 2009 at 5:00 AM

With speculation over which defense programs will suffer the budget ax reaching a fever pitch just days before Defense Secretary Robert Gates is scheduled to brief Congress on those cuts, the developer of the Airborne Laser -- one of the programs with a bulls-eye on it -- today continued its full-court-press to sway public opinion on the effort, touting the ancillary benefits from that multiyear, multibillion-dollar program.

"Continued Airborne Laser development can protect a very perishable industrial base," one that has also helped develop very advanced optics that could be used in other laser projects, Boeing Vice President and General Manager of Missile Defense Systems Greg Hyslop told a Capitol Hill audience this morning.

Hyslop, who spoke at a Marshall Institute-sponsored event, also touted other possible missions for ABL above and beyond shooting down ballistic missiles in their boost phase, like cruise missile defense or counter-air defense.

Inside the Air Force cited Boeing officials last month warning that roughly 1,000 jobs -- and the United States' edge in laser technology -- are at risk if the ABL program is canceled.

An operational fleet of Airborne Laser aircraft is still years -- possibly decades -- away, and Boeing estimates that the per-plane cost could be between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. The Air Force predicts that a seven-aircraft fleet would be needed to successfully defend the United States from possible missile attacks.

As such, ABL has been on the table as one program that could be vulnerable in budget cuts predicted for the fiscal year 2010 defense budget.

. . . ((L))awmakers arguing for the cancellation of the program noted ABL’s schedule delays and cost increases. Other congressmen fighting for the program wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates pleading for the continuation of the laser’s development and did so because of their concerns of reports of the project’s possible termination.

But ABL wasn't the only boost-phase missile defense program being touted this morning. Michael Booen, Raytheon's vice president of advanced missile defense systems, spoke about his company's nascent effort to build an air-launched missile to shoot down ballistic missiles early in flight.

The proposed Net-Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE) is a two-stage missile with an infrared seeker that is designed to intercept short- and medium-range missiles in their boost phase. It is essentially an upgraded Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), which, Raytheon officials say, means that any aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicle capable of carrying AMRAAM can carry NCADE.

The Missile Defense Agency awarded Raytheon a $10 million contract last year to continue research-and-development work on NCADE.

Booen said this morning that the interceptors could be built for less than $1 million apiece.