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Photo Credit: Provided by Missile Defense Agency
It sounds like the plot for a Hollywood thriller:
A military airplane armed with a high-power laser detects a missile seconds after launch from an offshore vessel. The aircraft tracks the target and measures atmospheric conditions. It then fires the laser, zapping the missile out of the sky at the speed of light.
Photo Credit: USAF photo by Bobby Zapka
But on a recent night off the coast of California, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and a Boeing-led industry team showed the world that this technology isn’t Science fiction anymore.
The Airborne Laser Test Bed (ALTB) on Feb. 11 successfully demonstrated the speed, precision and breakthrough potential of directed-energy weapons when a modified Boeing 747-400F engaged and destroyed a short-range ballistic missile, much like those that threaten U.S. troops.
This experiment marks the first time a laser system has engaged and destroyed a ballistic missile in flight, and the first time that any system has destroyed a missile in its boost, or early, phase of flight. ALTB has the highest-energy laser ever fired from an aircraft, and is the most powerful mobile laser device in the world.
“The Airborne Laser Test Bed team has made history with this experiment,” said Greg Hyslop, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems.
“The revolutionary use of directed energy is very attractive for missile defense, with the potential to attack multiple targets at the speed of light, at a range of hundreds of kilometers,” the Missile Defense Agency said in a statement. The agency’s statement also pointed to the laser’s low cost per intercept attempt compared to current technologies.
According to the Missile Defense Agency, the experiment began when a short-range, threat-representative ballistic missile was launched from an at-sea mobile launch platform. Within seconds, the ALTB used onboard sensors to detect the boosting missile and used a low-energy laser to track the target. The ALTB then fired a second low-energy laser to measure and compensate for atmospheric disturbance. Finally, the ALTB fired its megawatt-class high-energy laser, heating the boosting ballistic missile to critical structural failure. The entire engagement occurred within two minutes of the target missile launch, while its rocket motors were still thrusting.
More engagements are planned in the coming months.
“We look forward to conducting additional research and development to explore what this unique directed energy system can do,” Hyslop said.
Boeing is the prime contractor for ALTB, which is designed to provide a test bed platform for continuing directed energy research.. Boeing provided the aircraft, the battle management system and overall systems integration and testing. Northrop Grumman designed and built the high-energy laser, and Lockheed Martin developed the weapon system's beam control/fire control system.
Boeing’s ALTB work has influenced other laser systems the company is developing, including a truck-mounted system for the U.S. Army and a ship-mounted system for the U.S. Navy.
“We’ve been saying for some time that the Airborne Laser would be a pathfinder for directed energy and would expand options for policymakers and warfighters," said Michael Rinn, Boeing vice president and ALTB program director. "With this/these successful experiment(s), the Airborne Laser Test Bed has blazed a path for a new generation of high-energy, ultra-precision weaponry. ALTB technology and future directed-energy platforms will transform how the United States defends itself and its friends and allies. Having the capability to precisely project force, in a measured way, at the speed of light, will save lives.”
Besides the Airborne Laser Test Bed, Boeing is developing a wide range of laser systems to address multiple defense needs and customers.
These systems include:
The High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HEL TD), a truck-mounted, high-energy laser weapon system that will destroy rockets, artillery shells and mortar rounds. Customer: U.S. Army.
The Free Electron Laser, a ship-mounted system to defend naval vessels against new, challenging threats, such as hyper-velocity cruise missiles. Customer: U.S. Navy.
The Tactical Relay Mirror System, which could be carried on unmanned aerial vehicles or balloon-like aerostats and be used to extend the range of a ground or airborne laser. Customer: U.S. Air Force, U.S. Department of Defense.
Laser Avenger, which integrates a laser on a Humvee-based Avenger system to destroy improvised explosive devices (IEDs), unexploded ordnance and unmanned aerial vehicles. Customer: Boeing-funded initiative.