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Airborne Laser works after billions spent

by Dan Barrett / /

A low-power laser mounted on a modified Boeing 747 has accomplished its goal of destroying a launched missile in its boost phase. While impressive, perhaps amazing, we need to ask those questions big spenders hate to hear: How much has it cost? How will this help? What's its future worth?

The Airborne Laser Program (ABL) has long been a platform in the cross-hairs of budgetary hawks and practical politicians looking for an end product rather than an eternal R&D project. A 2004 GAO report states "costs for developing ABL have nearly doubled from the Air Force’s original estimate and additional cost growth is occurring", doubling in cost in the first 7 years of development. This is not to downplay the technological achievement but questions the efforts and funds going into the program. The 2009 enacted budget was $401 million, while a total cost totals at least $8.2 billion from 1996 to 2008. The FY2010 expenditure is expected to be $187 million.

In light of President Obama closing the door on more ABL expansion, the program is limited to one prototype, meaning there will be no combat flights for this aircraft. The research will be of great value but a practical application of the data and tests seem to be destined for the scientific shelf rather than to production lines and US bases. In cases of scientific breakthroughs but little military value, the Pentagon has made an effort to transfer the technology to places such as NASA and academia so that the innovation won't go to waste. ABL should be one of those cases because the missile threat to US assets is small.

Rogue States such as Iran and North Korea are already ringed with ground-based interceptors, ready at a moment's notice. The ICBM Great Powers (Russia, China, France, and the UK) all understand the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and will not sacrifice themselves for a strike against the US. Those nations in nuclear-limbo (India, Pakistan, and Israel) either lack the will or capability to launch a missile attack. And let's not kid ourselves, terrorists don't have the infrastructure or operating space to steal, develop, or launch a missile which would be within the purview of the ABL system.

More importantly, special interests benefit from the continuation of ABL. “Boeing produces the airframe, a modified 747 jumbo jet, while Northrop Grumman supplies the higher-energy laser and Lockheed Martin is developing the beam and fire control systems.” Science benefits but ABL continuation seems to be less national defense and more boondoggle pork.