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Boeing faces jumbo problem over US aerial raygun fleet

Airbus A380s with frikkin' lasers on them?

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Boeing executives have revealed to reporters that they have worries about their plans to mount America's second nuke-nobbling laser cannon in a pricey new jumbo-jet variant. It seems that the 747 cargo model which will carry the first as-yet-unproven raygun is going out of production, and Boeing wants more cash so as to tackle the challenges which will come with a new airframe.

The current 747-400F prototype

America's photon-cannon defender - soon with a new travel case.

The Airborne Laser (ABL) project is intended to produce a fleet of aerial laser weapons which could patrol off the coast of (say) North Korea, and beam America-bound nuclear ICBMs out of existence as they boosted upward from their silos. The first airborne zapping of a test missile by the mighty, hundred-tonne beam blaster aboard the initial 747-400F is slated for next year - though this has slipped backwards constantly since 2003.

Assuming a successful shot, the next issue will be what carrying aircraft to use for the rest of the raygun fleet, as Boeing doesn't plan to keep making 747-400Fs. According to Aviation Week, some $16m is allotted in the 2009 US budget for looking into this question - but Boeing say that isn't enough to really get the ball rolling, and that it will lead to expensive delays after their anticipated 2009 triumph.

Others, however, can't quite see why Boeing's proposed new laser airframe - their new 747-8F enlarged jumbo freight model - is quite the obvious choice they say. The 747-8F is brand new, only just coming out, and is markedly different to the preceding 747-400F. This would appear to be quite an expensive step for the US taxpayers to take, though nobody can deny the increased performance that the new jet offers.

Even so, there are other and more affordable options open. For instance, existing 747-400 passenger planes can be converted into freighter models fairly economically - producing so-called 747-400BCFs, Boeing Converted Freighters. This would seem to offer an airframe much more like that of the existing ABL prototype, largely eliminating the difficulties and cost of shifting to a new type; and it would be cheap compared to buying a brand new 747-8F, too.

Then, of course, there's theoretically the option of using a non-US aircraft. Until lately, the notion of the Pentagon buying an enormous cargo aeroplane from anyone but Boeing would have seemed entirely laughable; but the aviation world is still ringing with the US Air Force's recent announcement that it would prefer to buy its next generation of tankers from Europe's Airbus.

Whether the USAF will actually be allowed to do that remains to be seen. However, it appears that Boeing can feel the wind blowing - even if it's determined to resist it in the case of ABL. Flight International reports that Boeing's ABL chief, asked if he had considered mounting the second ray-cannon in the new Airbus A380 double-decker superjumbo, admitted - no doubt rather bitterly - that he had.®

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