The US Missile Defence Agency's mighty, jumbo-jet-borne energy cannon, the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB), finally made good on decades of promises last week as it blasted a test missile out of existence above the Pacific. However the ALTB and its chemical laser technology have been relegated almost to the status of a curiosity in recent times, and the belated success is unlikely to see the project resurgent.
According to missile-defence spokesmen:
At 8:44 p.m. (PST), February 11, 2010, a short-range threat-representative ballistic missile, was launched from an at-sea mobile launch platform. Within seconds, the ALTB used onboard sensors to detect the boosting missile and used a low-energy laser to track the target. The ALTB then fired a second low-energy laser to measure and compensate for atmospheric disturbance. Finally, the ALTB fired its megawatt-class High Energy Laser, heating the boosting ballistic missile to critical structural failure. The entire engagement occurred within two minutes of the target missile launch, while its rocket motors were still thrusting.
This was the first directed energy lethal intercept demonstration against a liquid-fuel boosting ballistic missile target from an airborne platform...
Less than one hour later, a second solid fuel short-range missile was launched from a ground location on San Nicolas Island, California, and the ALTB successfully engaged the boosting target with its High Energy Laser, met all its test criteria, and terminated lasing prior to destroying the second target.
There will have been champagne corks popping at the missile-defence headquarters over the weekend, but even so we aren't likely to see a mighty fleet of raygun jumbos patrolling the skies near rogue nations in order to blast any threatening missiles as soon as they take off.
Firstly, ALTB type planes would need to be within a few hundred km of the missile launch sites - or within the airspace of Iran, for instance. Secondly, even in the event of energy-weapon defence being seen as the way forward, the now old-fashioned chemical laser tech in the ALTB would probably not be chosen. The raygun jumbo's weapon requires troublesome topping-off with dangerous fuels, and in recent years electrical lasers have gone from strength to strength.
Quite apart from this, the Obama administration has lately de-emphasised exotic missile defence kit such as lasers and mid-course interceptors in favour of cheaper and perhaps more reliable gear like the Standard SM-3 naval interceptor.
Nonetheless last week's test is interesting news. We'll chase upon the reasons behind the aborted second lasing (did the jumbo run out of laser juice?) and let you know. ®