Airborne laser weapons heating up

The US Missile Defense Agency and Boeing are creeping ever closer to test firing a laser at ballistic missile.

Boeing this week said it had completed its first Airborne Laser (ABL) missile laser activation testing on the ground at Edwards Air Force Base, moving the program "a giant step closer to ABL's missile shoot-down demonstration planned for 2009," the company said.

The final plumbing and wiring installations will be completed in the coming weeks. All major components of the weapon system, including the battle management system, laser components, and beam control/fire control system, were installed earlier this year. The ABL system is a, infrared, megawatt-class, high-energy Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) installed inside a modified Boeing 747-400F aircraft to detect, track and destroy ballistic missiles as they lift off and head toward the atomosphere, a point in flight known as the boost phase, Boeing said.

ABL also can pass information on launch sites, target tracks and predicted impact points to other components of the global ballistic missile defense system. Boeing provides the aircraft, battle management and overall systems integration and testing. Northrop Grumman supplies the high-energy laser, and Lockheed Martin provides the beam control/fire control system, according to Boeing.

Boeing said laser activation testing is a methodical process to ensure ABL's high-energy chemical laser has been properly integrated aboard the aircraft and is ready to produce enough power to destroy a ballistic missile. The tests first flow water or other inert substances through the laser to verify its integrity. Next, the laser's chemicals flow through the laser to confirm sequencing and control. When the activation tests are complete, ground firings of the laser will occur, followed by flight tests of the entire ABL weapon system. The test phase will culminate in an airborne intercept test against a ballistic missile in 2009.

According to the defense agency the ALB is supposed to work as follows:

1) The Airborne Laser uses six strategically placed infrared sensors to detect the exhaust plume of a boosting missile.

2) Once a target is detected, a kilowatt-class laser, the Track Illuminator, tracks the missile and determines a precise aiming point.

3) The Beacon Illuminator, a second kilowatt-class laser, then measures disturbances in the atmosphere, which are corrected by the adaptive optics system to accurately point and focus the high energy laser at its intended target.

4) Using a very large telescope located in the nose turret, the beam control/fire control system focuses the megawatt laser beam onto a pressurized area of the boosting missile, holding it there until the concentrated energy causes the missile to break apart.

That's the idea anyway.

ABL isn't the only military laser system Being is involved with.

Earlier this month Boeing fired a high-energy chemical laser aboard a C-130H aircraft in ground tests for the first time. Boeing's Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) which is being developed for the Department of Defense, will destroy, damage or disable targets with little to no collateral damage, supporting missions on the battlefield and in urban operations, Boeing said.

Both ABL and ATL systems employ a Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) that is made by combining a bunch of nasty chemicals - potassium, peroxide, chlorine, iodine and other stuff and then fired at supersonic speeds. According to as post on Wikipedia, each COIL burst produces enough energy in a five-second burst to power a typical American household for more than one hour.

The system doesn't so much evaporate its target as melts or damages it rendering it useless. In the case of using it against missiles, the missile is typically weakened and then explodes, experts said.

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