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Raygun 747 test will be delayed, hints Boeing

Budget cuts for pork-scoffing jumbo

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Arms'n'airliners colossus Boeing says that its nuke-frying, raygun-packing jumbo jet project might suffer further delays if politicos on Capitol Hill cut funding.

The beam-cannon 747, formally titled the Airborne Laser (ABL), is intended to cruise near rogue states such as Iran or North Korea. Should the pariah government in question launch intercontinental missiles at the US, the patrolling jumbo could explode them from afar as they boosted upward through the atmosphere.

Boeing announced last Friday that it had carried out successful flight trials of the ABL's detection, tracking and beam-control systems, successfully lighting up a target aeroplane with a low-power test laser. The company, working with partners Lockheed and Northrop, now intends to mount the proper blaster beam kit. That done, Boeing says that the ABL can be ready for a full-dress test against a ballistic missile in 2009.

However, the 2008 ABL budget request of $549m has been marked up for a $250m cut by Congress, and Boeing fears that the senators on the Appropriations Committee may be fixing to approve it.

According to Aviation Week, Boeing veep Greg Hyslop says that unless ABL gets the full $549m there will be delays and the blaster-jumbo won't be ready to zap ICBMs in '09. He foretold a two-year slippage, to 2011.

"At this point, the level of cuts proposed by [Congress] would significantly delay shoot-down," said Hyslop.

"We need the presidential budget request to stay on track."

It seems unlikely that Democrat-controlled Capitol Hill will ever pass the complete ABL request. Many Democrats are hostile to the ABL, saying that more basic terminal-defence missile buster kit is nearer maturity and more relevant to the world picture.

North Korea and Iran have never managed a successful test of a rocket which could hit the continental US, so the current missile threat is more a matter of shorter-range missiles aimed against deployed US forces or allies. Such weapons can be tackled using specially modified standard interceptor missiles fired from Aegis warships, and perhaps by land-based gear, too.

A cynic might note that the ABL has already slipped back its forecast readiness date several times, and speculate that Boeing has assessed that they aren't going to get the full $549m. That cynic might also note that the high-power laser was always going to be the most difficult part of the ABL project.

In that light, the Boeing warning sounds more like an attempt to announce further delays to the ABL while trying to blame someone else. The full-on missile zap test might not happen in 2009 no matter how much pork the raygun jumbo gets to scoff.

It would certainly be interesting if the Senators called Boeing's bluff.®

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