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Back-burnered energy cannon jumbo fries the skies

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Vid The US Missile Defence Agency has released video of last week's test of the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) - the huge, jumbo-jet-mounted laser cannon built to blast hostile ballistic missiles out of the sky as they boost upward from their launch sites.

The ALTB was formerly known simply as the Airborne Laser (ABL), but has had its name changed to reflect the fact that the Pentagon no longer expects to move forward and acquire a fleet of such aircraft. The project is now seen more as a research effort than one intended to deliver actual combat equipment.

This shift to the back burner for the rocket-burner follows partly from the Obama administration's general watering down of US missile defence efforts. Plans to place powerful (but occasionally unreliable) midcourse interceptors in Eastern Europe have been abandoned, and more reliance is to be placed on the naval SM-3 interceptor, perhaps in future based ashore.

Iran is currently regarded as the primary rogue-nation menace, and while it has some missiles none can deliver a warhead to the USA and none are yet tipped with nuclear weapons, or expected to be so tipped any time soon.

“The reality is [the Iranian missile threat] did not come as fast as we thought it’d come,” said General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, last year.

The laser jumbo might have been unlikely to see service in its current form regardless of policy, however. Its limited effective range - thought to be on the order of a few hundred kilometres - would render it ineligible for use against missile fields in Iran, for example. Furthermore, its chemical laser technology offers only a limited amount of beaming before requiring a top-up with toxic, corrosive fuels - a full reload for an ABL plane packaged in trolleys for use at a forward airbase would apparently fill two mighty C-17 transports.

With electrical war-beams now topping 100 kilowatts and said to be "scalable" onward (the ALTB's chem-ray is "megawatt class"), such technology will probably soon be outmoded. Should a fleet of flying ray-cannon craft actually be desired - perhaps to patrol off the coast of North Korea, if that country ever gets its erratic Taepodong-2 long-range rocket to work - it would probably use electric kit. ®

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