Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/01/25/abl_january_vid/

Jumbo-jet laser cannon tested against missile

Nork splash weapon tickles surrogate gently

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 25th January 2010 11:46 GMT

Vid The US Missile Defence Agency has released video of its jumbo-jet-mounted laser cannon - intended to beam down nuclear missiles lifting off from enemy countries - in action, playing its ray on a test rocket off California.

Here's the vid:

According to the MDA:

The Airborne Laser (ABL) research and development platform successfully fired the onboard High Energy Laser (HEL) to engage an instrumented target missile, called a Missile Alternative Range Target Instrument (MARTI). This test demonstrated the full functionality of the ABL system to successfully acquire, track, and engage a boosting target. Test instrumentation aboard the MARTI collected data to evaluate ABL laser system performance. This test engagement was not intended to lethally destroy the missile.

The MARTI test rocket was launched from San Nicolas Island off the central Californian coast, which lies within a US naval firing range used for the test. According to the MDA the trial raying earlier this month provided data which will assist with the first attempt to actually destroy a missile, now set to take place sometime this year.

ABL programme chiefs had previously spoken of full-on destruction tests taking place last year, so it's clear that flight testing of the mighty raygun hasn't gone as smoothly as hoped. Even a 2009 success would have been much later than was originally foreseen at the programme's genesis, decades ago.

The project may be doomed in any case, no matter how soon it manages to shoot a trial missile down. Funding for further planes after the original prototype has been cut, robbing the idea of plausibility - the plan was originally to deploy standing patrols of blaster-jumbos near enemy missile fields, for instance off the coast of North Korea. But hostile Norks armed with possible working missiles of the future - the only long-ranging Nork missile has yet to achieve a successful launch - could easily time their attack to avoid visits from a single plane.

Then there are the severe cost and logistic burdens imposed by the chemical technology used in the ABL's laser, which requires two massive C-17 airlifters' worth of supplies to achieve a single refuel. With electrically-powered lasers now beginning to deliver useful power levels, chemical energy weapons may soon become a techno dead end.

US missile-defence strategy has shifted significantly since the Obama administration took over, too, moving away from powerful midcourse interceptors, lasers etc. and towards the SM-3 naval countermissile, widely seen as more reliable if somewhat less gee-whiz.

Even so, the possible ABL missile blast later this year should provide a good show at the very least. ®