American Forces Press Service

Laser Will Knock Down Enemy Missiles


  By Jim Garamone
 American Forces Press Service

 SEATTLE -- It sounds like a Tom Clancy novel.
 American troops are in battle against some evil foreign 
 power. The enemy is losing, and in an effort to redress the 
 balance, launches a missile packed with chemical agent. 
 As the missile boosts from a hidden launcher, sensors in a 
 modified Boeing 747 pick up the telltale signature of the 
 launch. Immediately, the crew aboard the craft springs to 
 action. Sensors and radars locate the missile, charge up a 
 laser and fire. The missile explodes, American service 
 members lives are spared, and all is well with the world.
 But this is not the stuff of fiction. It is becoming 
 reality and defense officials expect to test just such a 
 system against a live missile Sept. 5, 2003. If all goes 
 well, the program could become fully operational around 
 The Airborne Laser, designed to defend against the growing 
 threat of theater ballistic missiles, is being built by a 
 consortium of high-technology firms including Boeing, TRW 
 and Lockheed-Martin. The project is expected to cost $1.1 
 billion, which includes the cost of two specially modified 
 747s. The Airborne Laser is intended to kill ballistic 
 missiles in the boost phase at ranges of up to hundreds of 
 The aircraft will be autonomous -- meaning it will detect, 
 acquire and destroy enemy missiles with the equipment on 
 board. "While we can take cues from outside the aircraft, 
 it is designed to be used alone," said Paul D. Shennum, 
 Boeing vice president for the Airborne Laser program. 
 A high-energy laser being developed by TRW is at the heart 
 of the program. It is a chemical oxygen iodine laser and 
 has already been tested at 110 percent of the power needed 
 to knock out a rocket. Since the laser will be aboard a 
 plane, TRW is using composite materials, plastics and 
 titanium to reduce the weight.
 Firing a laser through the atmosphere from a moving plane 
 to knock out a missile traveling at ballistic speeds is an 
 incredible feat of engineering. Air turbulence distorts 
 lasers. So when firing, computers aboard the aircraft will 
 take into consideration the distortion and focus on the 
 target. The aircraft will have two illumination lasers that 
 will acquire the target and give information on where the 
 distortion in the air is so the main laser can adjust. 
 Lockheed-Martin is building the illumination lasers.
 Lockheed Martin is also building the beam control system 
 and nose-mounted turret. The beam control system processes 
 information on target acquisition and tracking and also 
 handles compensating for atmospheric distortion. Planes 
 bounce around in flight -- even something as large as a 
 747. The beam control system compensates for this. In the 
 nose-mounted turret is a 1.5 meter telescope that focuses 
 the beam. 
 The Airborne Laser program is just one part of the 
 military's total theater missile defense system. Along with 
 the Army's Patriot 3 system, the Navy's Area-wide defense 
 system and the Army's Theater high-altitude area defense 
 system, the program will help protect U.S. troops from the 
 growing threat of theater ballistic missiles.