Mindful of the current budgetary environment, the industry team developing the Airborne Laser has begun to do some in-house studies to see how system could be re-jiggered to be able to shoot down not just ballistic missiles in their boost phase but also cruise missiles and other enemy flying objects.
"The contractors have begun to do some work in simulation to show that there are capabilities for the weapon system in the future and there are some changes that would need to be made because we're optimized for ballistic missiles, but we believe that there are some capabilities for counter-aircraft and counter-((surface-to-air missiles)), for example, and potentially cruise missiles," Boeing ABL Program Director Mike Rinn told reporters during a conference call earlier today. "So it kind of opens up a whole other area -- that is not our primary mission, I want to state that emphatically, the Missile Defense Agency has designed the system for all classes of ballistic missile in boost phase -- but we believe there's other potential in the multimission arena."
Earlier today, MDA and its industry partners announced that the ABL program has successfully test-fired the megawatt-class laser through the Boeing 747 aircraft's turret mount in a ground test last week.
During the conference call with reporters, Boeing's Rinn said the program was still on track for a late summer, early fall 2009 attempt to intercept a live target ballistic missile.
The ABL program has encountered increasing congressional scrutiny. House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee Chairwoman Ellen Tauscher earlier this month promised hearings on programs like ABL when Congress comes back in session next year. Not only that, InsideDefense.com reported earlier this month that the incoming Obama administration was mulling cuts to a small handful of named high-profile weapon systems, among them national missile defense and ABL.
Even if next summer's intercept attempt is successful, such a demonstration will not by itself be enough to prove the weapon meets requirements, the program office's commander said this past summer. Follow-on tests of the platform must occur before the laser is ready to go into production, he added. As Inside Missile Defense reported:
Unless the program office discovers something considered anywhere between "concerning" and "hideous" between now and August 2009, ABL’s in-flight shoot-down demonstration will take place as scheduled, Col. Robert McMurry, commander of the Airborne Laser program office at Kirtland Air Force Base, NM, said during a June 27 National Press Club briefing on the directed-energy weapon's progress.
Still, though the test will be at a range that is "significant" -- the exact range is classified, but retired Lt. Gen. Michael Dunn, CEO of the Air Force Association, at the same briefing put it at hundreds of kilometers -- the program follows a "crawl-walk-run" process, and an "envelope expansion" of the laser's capabilities will be needed to prove its concept of operations, McMurry said.
“I don’t think you’re going to satisfy all of the government’s requirements that you need to say, ‘That thing’s ready to procure’ by . . . a single shoot-down; it’s just not going to happen,” McMurry said. “So what we need to do is show the operational utility. Part of that plan is things like taking the system now and shoot((ing)) something down, but, instead of shooting it down here, fly it to Hawaii and shoot it there and prove you can move it and then use it. There are a number of those variations on the theme that kind of start to pin down the modeling that you’ve done to support the concept of operations and do it beyond just computer modeling that really anchor that in real-life, purposeful execution of the . . . top-end requirements.”
In the conference report accompanying the Fiscal Year 2009 Defense Authorization Act, House and Senate lawmakers called for a Defense Department-sponsored independent study of boost-phase missile defenses, including ABL, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor and other potential systems.
“The study would assess a variety of relevant factors and compare the results to non-boost-phase missile defense systems,” the report states.
The conferees also prohibit spending money to buy a second ABL aircraft until the defense secretary certifies that the system “has demonstrated, through successful testing and operational and cost analysis, a high probability of being operationally effective, suitable, survivable and affordable.”
Money also cannot be allocated to a second aircraft until 60 days after the boost-phase missile defense study is submitted, according to the bill text.