Airborne Laser prepares for flight tests

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October 28, 2006 The U.S. Missile Defense Agency rolled out the Airborne Laser (ABL) aircraft for the first time yesterday during a ceremony marking major program achievements on several fronts. When finished, ABL will be capable of destroying a ballistic missile during its boost phase, while it is still climbing in the Earth’s atmosphere and before it can deploy its warheads – all at the speed of light. The Northrop Grumman-developed high-energy laser, which achieved lethal power and run-times in a ground laboratory in 2005, will be installed in the ABL aircraft in 2007 to prepare for the program’s missile shoot-down test in 2008.

Lt Gen Obering addressed the milestone celebration crowd and summed it up well. “As an old fighter pilot, I have to marvel at how you can put a six-ton turret on the front of a jet … incorporate an incredibly complex system of optics and avionics … make more modifications to the hull of a 747 than have ever been made before … and still have it airworthy. I’m looking forward to seeing how you’re going to fit the equivalent of 6 SUVs in there. Not only that, you’ve had to invent your own management criteria almost from scratch … new procedures, new tests, new targets, new checks.”

Obering said the team was “pioneering a field of endeavor on which untold other technologies and advances can build … in hardware and software, in tactics and strategies, in offense and defense … all ultimately contributing to improved national security.”

“Today, of course, we’re marking the rollout of the aircraft as it prepares to enter flight testing. You’ve accomplished a tremendous amount since the aircraft arrived here in August of last year. Now it’s time to begin active tracking flight tests against the Big Crow aircraft. You’ve demonstrated capability on the ground.

“Let’s do it now in flight. I don’t have to tell you how difficult your challenges have been, but the way you have overcome them – the “how” – has been equally impressive. You’ve forged a team of government and contractors that have worked together to push the boundaries of science and engineering in new directions and dimensions. You’ve taken the best and brightest our nation has to offer and accomplished things that our skeptics said could never be done. Yes, there have been a lot of skeptics, but you kept the faith and showed what teamwork, hard work, talent, and dedication can do. And you’ve done this while keeping a tenuous industrial base healthy enough to sustain your efforts over the years.

“So you have every reason to be proud."

“As you look back, some of you might think this has been a program of survival. But I look on it as a program of discovery. You have discovered new engineering techniques to take advantage of older scientific knowledge … you have discovered new manufacturing techniques to solve enduring structural problems … and you are opening the gate to new operational techniques to solve the age-old challenge of defeating an adversary.”

“In short, you are laying the groundwork for the twin goals of a more robust missile defense now … and a new field of directed energy systems for the future. Your professionalism and your accomplishments stand clearly before us.

“On behalf of your colleagues and teammates in the Missile Defense Agency and the Department of Defense, I thank you.”

The Airborne Laser team in Wichita fully integrated the Lockheed Martin-designed beam control/fire control system inside the ABL aircraft, a modified Boeing 747-400F. Two solid-state illuminator lasers, which are part of the beam control device, and a surrogate high-energy laser were installed and fired repeatedly at a simulated ballistic missile target. The track illuminator laser is designed to track a target, while the beacon illuminator laser is intended to measure atmospheric turbulence that the high-energy chemical laser would encounter in its path to the target. During the ground tests, results from the illuminator firings were fed back to ABL, allowing the surrogate high-energy laser to shoot down a simulated target. The program achieved most of the objectives of the ground tests and expects to satisfy the remaining ones in the coming months.

In Wichita, the team, including a Boeing-Northrop Grumman contingent on temporary assignment from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., added floor reinforcements and chemical-fuel tanks to the back of the aircraft to prepare the jet for installation of the high-energy laser in 2007.

The team, with ABL partner Northrop Grumman in the lead, completed a significant milestone for the high-energy laser. In California, Northrop Grumman finished ground-testing the optics that will shape the high-energy laser beam and direct it from the laser to the beam control/fire control system. The optics underwent inspection and refurbishment after the laser achieved lethal power and run-times in a ground laboratory in December 2005.

The team is preparing for another major activity later this year. The program will begin firing the illuminators in flight at an instrumented target board located on a missile-shaped image painted on a test aircraft. This activity will verify ABL's active tracking and atmospheric compensation capabilities.

"This rollout ceremony symbolizes many significant accomplishments," said Pat Shanahan, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems. "The collective team has done a phenomenal job integrating the aircraft and demonstrating its capability in ground tests. Now we are ready to go fly. We are ready to demonstrate the aircraft's ability to close the fire control loop against a flying target. Once again, we made and demonstrated enormous progress toward ushering in a new age of technology, namely directed energy weapons."

Boeing is the prime contractor for ABL, which will provide a speed-of-light capability to destroy all classes of ballistic missiles in their boost phase of flight. Boeing provides the modified aircraft and the battle management system and is the overall systems integrator. ABL partners are Northrop Grumman, which supplies the high-energy laser and the beacon illuminator laser, and Lockheed Martin, which provides the nose-mounted turret in addition to the beam control/fire control system.

The ABL program is managed by the Missile Defense Agency and executed by the U.S. Air Force from Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque. Boeing, the prime contractor for ABL, provides the modified aircraft and the battle management system and is the overall systems integrator.

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