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US to test missile-killing airborne laser

Military powers up 747-mounted beast

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The US is pressing on with its highly ambitious Airborne Laser (ABL) project - a 747-mounted ballistic missile killer previously slated for possible termination due to the program's "inability to meet cost and schedule targets", as Space.com puts it.

The ABL Boeing 747. Photo: USAFThe joint Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin project - slated at $1.1bn, with $471.6m in the pot for 2006 - will now proceed towards a 2008 full-fat test on a missile target.

The ABL is a three-laser set-up with two low-powered, solid state lasers dedicated to tracking the missile and testing for atmospheric distortion, and the main chemical laser weapon. The whole shooting match is housed in a computer-controlled turret aboard a Boeing 747 which is expected to fly a figure-of-eight pattern over any potential launch site. Once onboard infrared sensors detect a launch, the computer automatically positions the turret at the optimum position for a kill.

The ABL's laser turret. Photo: Lockheed MartinThat's the idea, anyway. This year the programme expects to wrap up ground-based "testing of the solid-state lasers for missile tracking and atmospheric-distortion correction" leading to flight tests before the end of 2006. Boeing vice president and ABL program director Greg Hyslop rather marvellously explained that during the latter "the lasers will be fired at a military NKC-135 aircraft with a picture of a ballistic missile painted on its fuselage".

Quite how much of the budget is being committed to ballistic missile artists is not noted, but the project directors will be hoping the thing goes off with a bang. Despite the lifting of the threat of sudden death, the ABL must still meet certain "knowledge points" which allow the guys paying the bills to keep track of progress, the ABL's overall director, Air Force Colonel John Daniels, explained.

The principal knowledge point will be, naturally, the 2008 missile-busting test, after which the ABL's fate will be decided. It is in direct competition with the Kinetic Energy Interceptor - a missile-based Northrop Grumman Corporation and Raytheon Company collaboration consisting of of a "mobile launcher, an interceptor and a command and control battle management and communication system that is housed in a transportable trailer".

Over at DARPA, meanwhile, they're keeping quiet regarding progress on the High Energy Laser Area Defense System (HELADS) programme, which - as we reported last year - promised to get a 150kW, fridge-sized weapon in the air by 2007. ®

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