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Airborne Laser

The ABL weapon system consists of a high-energy, chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) mounted on a modified 747-400F (freighter) aircraft to shoot down theater ballistic missiles in their boost phase. A crew of four, including pilot and copilot, would be required to operate the airborne laser, which would patrol in pairs at high altitude, about 40,000 feet, flying in orbits over friendly territory, scanning the horizon for the plumes of rising missiles. Capable of autonomous operation, the ABL would acquire and track missiles in the boost phase of flight, illuminating the missile with a tracking laser beam while computers measure the distance and calculate its course and direction. After acquiring and locking onto the target, a second laser - with weapons-class strength - would fire a three- to five-second burst from a turret located in the 747's nose, destroying the missiles over the launch area.

The airborne laser would fire a Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser, or COIL, invented at Phillips Lab in 1977. The laser's fuel consists of the same chemicals found in hair bleach and Drano - hydrogen peroxide and potassium hydroxide - which are then combined with chlorine gas and water. The laser operates at an infrared wavelength of 1.315 microns, which is invisible to the eye. By recycling chemicals, building with plastics and using a unique cooling process, the COIL team was able to make the laser lighter and more efficient while - at the same time - increasing its power by 400 percent in five years. The flight-weighted ABL module would be similar in performance and power levels to the multi-hundred kilowatt class COIL Baseline Demonstration Laser (BDL-2) module demonstrated by TRW in August 1996. As its name implies, though, it would be lighter and more compact than the earlier version due to the integration of advanced aerospace materials into the design of critical hardware components. For the operational ABL system, several modules would be linked together in series to achieve ABL's required megawatt-class power level.

Atmospheric turbulence, which weakens and scatters the laser's beam, is produced by fluctuations in air temperature [the same phenomenon that causes stars to twinkle]. Adaptive optics rely on a deformable mirror, sometimes called a rubber mirror, to compensate for tilt and phase distortions in the atmosphere. The mirror has 341 actuators that change at a rate of about a 1,000 per second.

The Airborne Laser is a Major Defense Acquisition Program. After the Concept Design Phase is complete, the ABL will enter the Program Definition and Risk Reduction (PDRR) Phase. The objective of the PDRR phase is to develop a cost effective, flexible airborne high energy laser system which provides a credible deterrent and lethal defensive capabilities against boosting theater ballistic missiles.

The ABL PDRR Program is intended to show high confidence system performance scalable to Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) levels. The PDRR Program includes the design, development, integration, and testing of an airborne high-energy laser weapon system.

In May 1994, two contracts were awarded to develop fully operational ABL weapon system concepts and then derive ABL PDRR Program concepts that are fully traceable and scaleable EMD. A single contract team was selected to proceed with the development of the chosen PDRR concept beginning in November 1996. Successful development and testing of the laser module is one of the critical 'exit criteria' that Team ABL must satisfy to pass the program's first 'authority-to-proceed' (ATP-1) milestone, scheduled for June 1998. Testing of the laser module is expected to be completed by April 1998. The PDRR detailed design, integration, and test will culminate in a lethality demonstration in the year 2002. A follow-on Engineering Manufacturing and Development/Production (EMD) effort could then begin in the early 2003 time frame. A fleet of fully operational EMD systems is intended to satisfy Air Combat Command's boost-phase Theater Air Defense requirements. If all goes as planned, a fleet of seven ABLs should be flying operational missions by 2008.

Performance requirements for the Airborne Laser Weapons System are established by the operational scenarios and support requirements defined by the user, Air Combat Command, and by measured target vulnerability characteristics provided by the Air Force lethality and vulnerability community centered at the Phillips Laboratory. The ABL PDRR Program is supported by a robust technology insertion and risk reduction program to provide early confidence that scaling to EMD performance is feasible. The technology and concept design efforts provide key answers to the PDRR design effort in the areas of lethality, atmospheric characterization, beam control, aircraft systems integration, and environmental concerns. These efforts are the source of necessary data applied to exit criteria ensuring higher and higher levels of confidence are progressively reached at key milestones of the PDRR development.

The key issues in the program will be effective range of the laser and systems integration of a Boeing 747 aircraft.


Airborne Laser Resources

  • The Airborne Laser - A Revolution in Military Affairs Gerald W Wirsig; Diane Fischer (Faculty Advisor) Air Command and Staff College 1997 - The method of employment and the portion of the theater missile defense mission to be performed by the ABL are yet to be determined.

    The Airborne Laser Program Homepage
    The ABL program is managed by the Air Force Phillips Laboratory.
    Airborne Laser Contract
    An archive of documents relating to the ABL contract and source selection process. Most of these are excruciatingly boring contract legalese, but this represents the major source of primary program information.

    Airborne Laser (ABL) for Theater Missile Defense
    The Airborne Laser (ABL) program is developing design concepts to minimize engineering risks for an airborne, high-energy laser weapon demonstrator capable of acquiring, tracking, and killing theater ballistic missiles in boost phase. The Airborne Laser Experiment (ABLEX) was a series of experiments propagating a laser beam between two aircraft. Two defense industry teams, Boeing and Rockwell International, developed design concepts for the ABL which include a nose-mounted turret, a chemical oxygen-iodine laser, and a 747 aircraft. At the end of the concept design phase, the Boeing contractor team was selected to build a demonstrator that will be flight tested.

    Airborne Laser (ABL)
    The Airborne Laser (ABL) Demonstrator Program is an Air Force Advanced Technology Demonstration program to develop and then demonstrate the necessary technologies to acquire, track, and destroy theater ballistic missiles during boost phase.

    Phillips Laboratory Scoping Meeting For Airborne Laser
    28 March 1995 - A meeting to discuss environmental concerns associated with the Phillips Laboratory's Airborne Laser Program was held April 4, 1995 to solicit public input on any environmental concerns.

    BOEING, LOCKHEED MARTIN, TRW WIN AIRBORNE LASER CONTRACT
    November 12, 1996 -- The U. S. Air Force awarded a team of Boeing, TRW and Lockheed Martin a $1.1 billion contract to develop and flight test a laser weapon system to defend against theater ballistic missiles.

    Airborne Laser @ Boeing
    As part of a US Air Force effort to address the feasibility of an airborne laser system for defense against those types of missiles, a team comprised of Boeing, TRW and Lockheed Martin has been exploring the concept of an accurate, airborne, high-energy laser.

    Airborne Laser - Rockwell Team
    There were initially two teams competing for the program: the Rockwell / Hughes / Raytheon E-Systems / SVS R&D / Lockheed Martin / Parsons / SAIC team, and the Boeing / Lockheed / TRW team. The Airborne Laser contract was awarded on November 12, 1996.

    Laser Beam Propagation and Control
    SPIE Proceedings Vol. 2120. Meeting Date: 01/23 - 01/29/94 - Abstracts for the papers in this volume are located in this file immediately following the contents list below. All papers are published by SPIE -- The International Society for Optical Engineering. Includes abstracts of reports on the Airborne laser experiment (ABLEX) series of experiments.

    Airborne Laser Experiment to study performance limits of turbulence compensation systems
    from OE Reports December 1995 issue An interview Russell Butts, Air Force Phillips Laboratory - ABLEX is an acronym for Airborne Laser Experiment, which was an experiment which propagated a laser beam from one aircraft to another aircraft. At the receiver aircraft, an 80-cm telescope and optical system imaged the intensity pattern incident across the aperture onto a focal plane where the intensity patterns were recorded.

    FTC NEGOTIATES SETTLEMENT WITH HUGHES OVER ITEK ACQUISITION;
    FEBRUARY 9, 1996 - The sale of assets between one of the partners in each of the two teams competing for a $700 million Air Force contract could raise prices or reduce investments in technology and quality for a critical component of an Air Force anti-missile program, the Federal Trade Commission has alleged. Today, the FTC announced it has reached a settlement of these allegations with General Motors and its subsidiaries, Hughes Electronics and Hughes Danbury Optical Systems. The FTC said the settlement will ensure continued competition for "deformable mirrors," part of the adaptive optics system that allow an anti-missile system to correct for distortions in the atmosphere. The affected system is the Air Force's Airborne Laser (ABL) program.

  • MIT, USAF, And Team ABL Demonstrate Improved Airborne Laser Active Tracking Approach
  • Team ABL Proposes Airborne Laser Weapon System - July 9, 1996
  • TRW Approved to Begin Manufacturing First Laser Hardware for Airborne Laser System March 10, 1997
  • Team ABL Successfully Completes A Major Program Milestone, March 26, 1997
  • Set Lasers on Stun
  • New Solid-State Laser Developed for Airborne Laser Program, Lockheed Martin Press Release, 30 March 2001 -- Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company today announced that its subcontractor, Raytheon Electronic Systems, has achieved a crucial milestone in the development of the Beam Control/Fire Control system for the U.S. Air Force's Airborne Laser (ABL) program. The Beam Control/Fire Control system will aim and fire a high-energy laser at a target missile in its boost phase.



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