The Dawn of the Missile-Busting Laser

Star Wars dreams--or nightmares--come true

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At 8:44 p.m. last night, the stuff of boyhood sci-fi daydreaming became reality. Using a high-powered laser weapon mounted to a 747 airliner, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) successfully shot down a ballistic missile. The venture was a team effort involving Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing. "The revolutionary use of directed energy is very attractive for missile defense, with the potential to attack multiple targets at the speed of light," the MDA said. The new weapon is called the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) and bloggers are discussing how it works and what it means geopolitically:

  • Some Serious Muscle Flexing, writes Steven D at Booman Tribune: "This sets the stage for a potential arms race with China. At the least, it is also a warning shot across Iran's bow, because it increases the likelihood of an Israeli or American attack against Iran's nuclear facilities if the ALTB system is viewed as an effective defense against any potential Iranian missile strikes in response."
  • Been a Long Time Coming, writes Noah Shachtman at Wired: "This is a test the MDA was hoping to conduct in 2002, after spending about a billion dollars. But the Airborne Laser ran into all kinds of problems along the way. The chemicals the jet depended on to generate its high-strength laser weighed down the 747. Getting the laser to accurately zap through the atmosphere proved tougher than anticipated. The Airborne Laser eventually ballooned into a $7.3 billion project."
  • Here's How it Worked, explains Jason Mick at DailyTech: "The package features infrared sensors to first detect missiles by homing in to their exhaust plume. It then employs two kilowatt-class lasers dubbed the Track and Beacon Illuminator, respectively, the first of which tracks the target with precision and the second of which accounts of the atmospheric disturbances. Then comes the critical step. A package in the plane's nose underbody uses a very large telescope to focus a megawatt-class COIL beam (generated by an Chemical Iodine Oxygen laser) onto sensitive regions of the target."
  • Remaining Questions "We also don't know" three things, writes Steven D: "(1) the operational range of this new laser, (2) whether it would work against any potential countermeasures an adversary might employ in a combat situation, or (3) whether it could deal with multiple missiles launched simultaneously in time to prevent all of them from reaching their targets." He argues that these are essential questions to answer before relying on the system in an engagement with a ballistic missile-armed nation.
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