Released: Jul 2, 1998
This key decision for the Airborne Laser System Program Office is the first of two -- the next one being in 2001 -- that give senior Air Force and Department of Defense officials insight into the program's technical progress as it moves toward the test of a missile shoot-down in 2002.
The decision also clears the way for the Air Force to obligate the remainder of Fiscal Year 1998 development funds approved for the program by Congress last year.
In order to get this decision, the Airborne Laser program had to produce a laser module with a specified amount of power and within certain size and weight restrictions. Earlier in the month, TRW Space & Electronics of Redondo Beach, Calif., successfully fired the first laser module for the Airborne Laser program office. The operational aircraft will carry 14 of these laser modules, each weighing less than 3,000 pounds.
Another requirement was to show that the Airborne Laser system could track a missile in flight. This was done in tests last year at the Army's White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
Program officials also had to demonstrate that they understood how the atmosphere might affect a laser beam traveling hundreds of miles to its target. Although additional atmospheric testing will be conducted, the information gathered so far and an analysis of that data indicate that the atmosphere will not significantly affect the laser.
"I'm pleased with the Airborne Laser's progress and view it as a major success," said Druyun. "The program is following the acquisition streamlining path we mapped out in 1996. The program is right on cost and schedule. Even more dramatic is that it shows the power of acquisition reform. Since the program began a year and a half ago, Team ABL [the Air Force and industry consortium developing the system] designed, manufactured and tested the lightest, most powerful laser module in the world. Before we streamlined the process, this would have been impossible."
The Airborne Laser is designed to destroy theater ballistic missiles during the early stages of their flight, while they are still under power and thrusting skyward. It is during this stage that the missiles are easiest to spot. By destroying them at this stage, a missile's components tend to fall back on the launching country, an incentive for that country not to use chemical or biological warheads.
The Airborne Laser System Program Office, based at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., is leading an industry team that includes Boeing Information Space & Defense Systems of Seattle, Wash.; TRW Space & Electronics of Redondo Beach, Calif.; and Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space of Sunnyvale, Calif.
* Darleen A. Druyun
* Airborne Laser Program Web site