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Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

This is a discussion on Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test within the World Armed Forces forums, part of the World Strategic Defence Area category; An airborne laser is a waste of money. America does not need an airborne laser to establish air superiority and ...

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    Martian's Avatar
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    Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

    An airborne laser is a waste of money. America does not need an airborne laser to establish air superiority and penetrate North Korean or Iranian airspace. An airborne laser with a 50-mile to 100-mile range is useless against ICBM targets inside continental China (e.g. 3,000 miles across). There is no foreseeable technology that will enable the development of a laser that is "20 to 30 times more powerful" (e.g. with a 1,000 to 3,000 mile range).

    Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test - FoxNews.com

    "Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test
    Published October 22, 2010 | Reuters


    Boeing's Yal 1A Airborne Laser Aircraft works its way through initial tests at the company's Western Test Range.

    A converted Boeing 747 equipped with a powerful laser failed to shoot down a mock enemy ballistic missile, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said on Thursday, the system's second botched flight test in a row.

    Preliminary indications are that the so-called Airborne Laser Test Bed tracked the target's exhaust plume but did not hand off to a second, "active tracking" system as a prelude to firing the high-powered chemical laser, said Richard Lehner, an MDA spokesman.

    "The transition didn't happen," he said. "Therefore, the high-energy lasing did not occur."

    Boeing produces the airframe and is the project's prime contractor, while Northrop Grumman supplies the high-energy laser and Lockheed Martin has been developing the beam- and fire-control systems.

    About $4 billion has gone into it since the Boeing-led team won the contract for it in 1996. The system is designed to focus a super-heated, basketball-sized beam on a pressurized part of a boosting missile long enough to cause it to fail.

    For fiscal 2011 that began Oct. 1, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $98.6 million for all of the Defense Department's directed energy research, including the Airborne Laser Test Bed.

    Previously, the flying raygun had been under development as a potential part of a layered U.S. ballistic missile shield against weapons that could be fired by countries such as Iran and North Korea. Pentagon planners initially envisaged using the aircraft to shoot down ballistic missiles near their launch pads.

    "The reality is that you would need a laser something like 20 to 30 times more powerful than the chemical laser in the plane right now to be able to get any (safe) distance from the launch site to fire," Gates told the House of Representatives Appropriations Defense subcommittee last year after scaling it back.

    The technology is now being tested for other potential missile-defense applications.

    The United States has been spending about $10 billion a year to build a bulwark against missiles that could be tipped with chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.

    The MDA said in a statement on its website that officials would investigate the cause of the Airborne Laser system's "transition failure" in the test that took place late Wednesday off the Southern California coast.

    "The intermittent performance of a valve within the laser system is being examined," the statement said. A spokeswoman for Boeing's directed energy program, Elizabeth Merida, referred calls to the MDA.

    The Airborne Laser system successfully shot down a target ballistic missile in February in the first such test of a flying directed-energy weapon.

    The initial success demonstrated the potential use of directed energy against enemy ballistic missiles shortly after they are launched, Pentagon and Boeing officials have said.

    The system's second shoot-down test, also at the Point Mugu military test range off California, failed on Sept. 1.

    That test was designed to double the distance between the 747-400F aircraft and the target to about 100 miles. But it ended early when corrupted beam control software steered the high-energy laser slightly off center, apparently because of a communications software error, the MDA said.

    Lehner said the range of the latest test was "the same as the successful February experiment" -- that is about 50 miles, although the exact range remains classified.

    The MDA still considers directed energy "in some form," possibly a solid-state laser, to have a lot of potential for missile defense, he said.

    The system carried a price tag of $1 billion to $1.5 billion per aircraft before Gates canceled a possible second aircraft in June 2009."
    Last edited by Martian; 10-23-2010 at 08:44 PM.

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    Re: Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

    I think that ABL is useful for gathering data but not practical as an actual weapon. An air-based Laser Missile Defence platform probably won't come about until the power bottleneck on solid state lasers is overcome.

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    Re: Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

    Also, when you increase the distance sufficiently, you get a problem with the curvature of the earth, as bending light requires a tremendous amount of energy, and the 'bending' application would have to be on the ground along the laser's 'trajectory' (alternatively you could use another plane or most likely a satellite as a relay, but that would increase the source energy demand further, as the distance is increased)

    I'm sure the weapon works well enough with NK or Iran, in a situation where their air forces have been mostly obliberated and air defences sufficiently weakened. The problem with this plane is that having it fly around inside these countries attacking their only strategic assets would make it the single most valuable target in the whole theatre. I'm sure that even if they were down to shooting at it with saloon rifles, they would.

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    Re: Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

    I'm not too surprised about this. A Lasers power and accuracy will depend on the weather itself and objects between it and its target. Like Clouds, Dust and other atmospheric conditions.

    So as what Maggern said about bending light. A couple of Russian guys on another forum were talking about how they (Russian Scientists) tried this before and found Lasers unsatisfactory in sattelite Ground attack and ICBM intercept.

    And also Having a Boeing aircraft that Big to Lug around its Ammo must be a Pain. In Sci Fi Lasers can fire a vast amount of time without having to reload. In Reality Firing Lasers that can destroy Objects requires quite a lot of ammo to fire a single burst.

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    Re: Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

    This is an experimental weapon system. Failures are to be expected along the way.

    But, that does not necessarily make it a waste of money though.

    Bearing in mind that laser weapons that are powerful enough to destroy things is a very new field, there are bound to be significant challenges to overcome.

    Potentially, 1 of the biggest pay-offs to laser weapons is that they don't need to carry ammo. They only need a powerful source of energy. With miniature nuclear reactors already in use on satellites, laser weapons (once the technology matures) will be the weapon of choice in space warfare. It does away with the need to lug missiles up into orbit for space warfare.

    Also, having a weapon that travels at the speed of light provides enormous advantages because there will hardly be any warning. A hypersonic weapon will pale in comparison.

    IMO, those are probably the reasons why countries with laser weapon programs are pursuing them.

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    Re: Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

    Actually I applaud the failure (in a good way). With failure, it would show what is missing and what went wrong, and only with this would improvement be done. When there is no failure, it would seemed that the technology is good enough for a go. But in mine field... many times, it seemed that what would go wrong (because everything is alright in the lab), would go wrong on field.

    As many had stated in their replies, one source to overcome is the energy problem. I am wondering, it would be difficult to power such high-energy lasers and was a pain the in the arse to lug around massive generators (or nuclear generators - miniaturise) in an aircraft - what if we position our lasers in the satellites.

    Satellites are in space, they receive direct solar radiation with minimal lost and these energy could be used to powered the lasers. Plus... ballistic missiles (tactical and ICBM) at a stage will be travelling in space, and so to intercept them before the final re-entry stage might be easier than to try to knock off the missiles at final re-entry stage which might very well means hitting a target travelling at around six times the speed of sound in atmosphere.
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    Airborne laser technology has hit a brick wall

    Regarding the idea of placing nuclear-powered satellites in orbit, China has already demonstrated its ASAT technology to shoot them down. A laser-resistant and/or stealthy ASAT missile will destroy a nuclear-powered satellite and shower the Earth with radioactive debris.

    The airborne laser (i.e. ABL) has at least five serious problems and there are no solutions in sight.

    1. The best technology today falls short of the military requirement for a laser that is "twenty to thirty times more powerful." Where in the world are scientists supposed to find a portable energy source with an energy density that is "twenty to thirty times" greater than currently known?

    By analogy, imagine scientists being asked to produce a substance "twenty to thirty times" harder than diamonds. Good luck with that. The laws of nature (or physics) impose constraints. The ABL has hit an energy-density brick wall for portable fuel source.

    2. The ABL requires an unimaginably long two-minutes to shoot down one unprotected ballistic missile under ideal conditions. The gigantic Boeing 747 cannot survive battlefield conditions and loiter over enemy airspace for two minutes. With a massive radar and infrared signature, the Boeing 747 is an easy target for advanced mobile surface-to-air missiles.

    3. As I have said before, the ABL is designed for a superpower battle. The U.S. doesn't need an ABL against small fries. This implies a weather problem. China is over 9,600,000 square kilometers in area. As a continent, China has a variety of weather. It is safe to say that there is always inclement weather over significant parts of China. With cloudy, rainy, or snowy weather, is the ABL effective at all under those poor weather conditions?

    4. A ballistic missile equipped with countermeasures will take forever to destroy with a laser. Conceptually, this is easily understood by placing space shuttle heat tiles on the outside of a ballistic missile. A heat tile is designed to protect a space shuttle from the extreme heat of atmospheric reentry. It remains to be seen whether an ABL can peel away the heat tile protection before it depletes all of the onboard chemical fuel for the laser.

    5. Each ABL costs "$1 billion to $1.5 billion per aircraft." Let's assume that a DF-31 ICBM costs $50 million each. For comparison, the MX missile was "approximately $70 million" each (see LGM-118 Peacekeeper - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). China can build a massive number of DF-31s for the price of one ABL. In other words, the ABL is not a cost-effective platform.

    My final verdict: ABL laser technology has hit a brick wall and this boondoggle should be canceled.

    From one of my posts that highlight the problem of requiring two minutes to destroy a ballistic missile, which did not possess countermeasures:

    There seems to be serious limitations to Boeing's Airborne Laser. The range is extremely limited at "200-250 km." It is not possible to fly an entire fleet of Airborne Lasers within 250 km of the launch sites in Russia or China to shoot down ICBMs in their boost phase. The Boeing 747 jumbo jet that houses the Airborne Laser is an easy target for a S-300 or HQ-9 missile.

    How Real Is The Threat Of Laser Weapons

    "What is the ALTB's potential? Although there is no exhaustive information on the February 12 tests, some conclusions can be drawn on the basis of available reports.

    The Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser (ABL) weapons system has three laser systems, namely, a Track Illuminator Laser (TILL) for illuminating the target and adjusting the parameters of the laser weapon's optical system, a Beacon Illuminator Laser (BILL) for reducing atmospheric aberration, and the six-module High-Energy Laser (HEL) weapon system.

    The YAL-1 can hit ballistic missiles during their boost phase and has a range of 200-250 km. The effective range is limited by the laser unit's power, the laser beam's atmospheric dissipation, atmospheric aberration affecting siting accuracy and the laser-beam gas breakdown effect which has not yet been eliminated. Moreover, an excessively powerful laser unit could overheat the fuselage and cause the plane to crash.

    These factors and the system's low rate of fire currently make it possible only to intercept individual missiles at short range. It appears that such systems will be unable to neutralize an all-out nuclear strike in the next 20-30 years.

    Speaking of a hypothetical Russian-U.S. conflict, airborne laser weapons would have to be deployed in Russian air space in order to be able to intercept Russian missiles in their boost phase and during the separation of their multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). In fact, they would have only 3-5 minutes to accomplish this objective.

    However, even Russia's problem-ridden air-defense system would not allow a B-747 to roam free in national air space.

    Airborne laser weapons present a greater threat to strategic ballistic missile submarines which either patrol Russian territorial waters or international waters. However, there is one limitation. As the submarines spend most of their time underwater, laser-carrying aircraft could not quickly reach the optimal firing position necessary for a successful missile interception.

    Consequently, this project's current version threatens only countries such as Iran or North Korea which have a small territory and are therefore unable to deploy missile bases far from their borders."


    "At 8:44 p.m. PST Feb. 11, a short-range threat-representative ballistic missile was launched from an at-sea mobile launch platform. Within seconds, the Airborne Laser Testbed used onboard sensors to detect the boosting missile and used a low-energy laser to track the target.

    The Airborne Laser Testbed then fired a second low-energy laser to measure and compensate for atmospheric disturbance. Finally, the Airborne Laser Testbed 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. The revolutionary use of directed energy is very attractive for missile defense, with the potential to attack multiple targets at the speed of light, at a range of hundreds of kilometers, and at a low cost per intercept attempt compared to current technologies.

    Less than one hour later, a second solid fuel short-range missile was launched from a ground location on San Nicolas Island, Calif., and the Airborne Laser Testbed successfully engaged the boosting target with its High Energy Laser, met all its test criteria, and terminated lasing prior to destroying the second target. The Airborne Laser Testbed destroyed a solid fuel missile, identical to the second target, in flight on February 3, 2010."
    Last edited by Martian; 10-24-2010 at 09:31 PM.

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    Re: Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

    Liquid fuel rocket motor? Even countries like the N.Korea, Iran, China all moved towards the solid fuel rocket motors for their missiles, which gives not as much warning time for the ABL to get into stations, and those "target nations" already employing air defenses like S-300 or their close equivalents.

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    Re: Airborne laser technology has hit a brick wall

    Quote Originally Posted by Martian View Post
    Regarding the idea of placing nuclear-powered satellites in orbit, China has already demonstrated its ASAT technology to shoot them down. A laser-resistant and/or stealthy ASAT missile will destroy a nuclear-powered satellite and shower the Earth with radioactive debris.
    Well... I beg to disagree with that assessment. Sorry to point that out, with your logic... you shouldn't even place a fighter in the air, because there are successful test on SAM, AAA and whatsnot that could shoot your fighter down.

    I mean, although China had ASAT technology, it should not be determining factor to weaponise the satellite, instead, other than weaponising the satellite, US could also work in parallel, capability to evade ASAT missiles. Plus the laser in the satellite could also be use to destroy ASAT missiles too.
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    Re: Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

    Satellites have one big problem - their orbits. In essence, their "window of vulnerability" is predictable and any ground based attacks can be planned ahead. With the right missile and guidance systems precise enough, it can be intercepted.

    Satellites can't be stealthy because naturally they moved in a predetermined orbit and they can be visually tracked, and even changing orbit to evade attacks won't work all the time - such move would exhaust the thruster fuel on-board and those were designated for orbit adjustments to deal with orbit decay; besides, the sky above is very crowded, what says it would have the room to "nudge about" to dodge the interceptor?

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    Re: Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

    I think there's a confusion here in regard to some sort of "light bending technology". No one has yet invented a machine that can bend light or laser once it's fired from the laser weapon and outside of it. What they are actually referring to is the aiming technology within the laser weapon itself, which, I believe, is also one of the biggest problems they are currently facing in relation to using laser as a weapon.

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    Re: Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

    Quote Originally Posted by Quickie View Post
    I think there's a confusion here in regard to some sort of "light bending technology". No one has yet invented a machine that can bend light or laser once it's fired from the laser weapon and outside of it. What they are actually referring to is the aiming technology within the laser weapon itself, which, I believe, is also one of the biggest problems they are currently facing in relation to using laser as a weapon.
    Bending light is indeed possible (e.g. the light from stars are bent around large planets, and the earth's magnetic field does its job in deflecting and squeezing some radiation away). The problem is the massive amounts of energy involved. Take the particle accelerators. They bend the paths of a few particles and yet are gigantic in scale and suck up more energy than the average city.

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    Re: Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

    Quote Originally Posted by Maggern View Post
    Bending light is indeed possible (e.g. the light from stars are bent around large planets, and the earth's magnetic field does its job in deflecting and squeezing some radiation away). The problem is the massive amounts of energy involved. Take the particle accelerators. They bend the paths of a few particles and yet are gigantic in scale and suck up more energy than the average city.
    A beam of light is very much different from a beam of charged particles. One is basically EM wave, the other is not. Anyway, let's go back on topic.

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    Boeing 747 is not analogous to a fighter jet: my top 9 differences

    Quote Originally Posted by rhino123 View Post
    Well... I beg to disagree with that assessment. Sorry to point that out, with your logic... you shouldn't even place a fighter in the air, because there are successful test on SAM, AAA and whatsnot that could shoot your fighter down.

    Photograph of a Boeing 747 and a fighter jet flying near lower Manhattan by istolethetv on Flickr

    Let's review my logic.

    A Boeing 747 is far larger than a fighter jet. Since it is virtually impossible to mask the Boeing 747's radar and infrared signatures, the Boeing 747 is a sitting duck.

    A fighter jet is not as vulnerable because:

    1. It is a lot smaller (e.g. look at the picture above).

    2. Far more maneuverable (e.g. can pull 8 Gs).

    3. Can fly supersonically to evade (e.g. supercruise or afterburner; neither is available on Boeing 747).

    4. Infrared flares are useful to allow escape via violent high-G maneuvers and/or attempted escape via supersonic speed.

    5. Fighter jets may carry anti-radiation missiles. If a SAM unit turns on its radar, it becomes a contest to see whether the pilot or the ground-crew fires first.

    6. Fighter jets may carry ECM pods. If the ECM measures are successful, the enemy SAM will veer away from the fighter jet.

    7. "Fighter planes must be able to 'hug' the ground so that they can fly under enemy radar cover."

    8. If all of the above are insufficient, rely on stealth of fighter (e.g. the whole point of building the F-22 and F-35). Stealth is not available for the Boeing 747.

    9. A fighter pilot in trouble can always eject. This is not an option for the people onboard the Boeing 747.

    In conclusion, fighter jets belong over the battlespace and Boeing 747s do not, which is what I had originally stated.
    Last edited by Martian; 10-25-2010 at 07:48 PM.

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    Re: Boeing's Airborne Laser Defense Fails the Test

    Quote Originally Posted by Quickie View Post
    A beam of light is very much different from a beam of charged particles. One is basically EM wave, the other is not. Anyway, let's go back on topic.
    Light is a form of EM wave, yes. However, it is known to have a wave/particle-dualistic nature. Sometimes it behaves like a wave, sometimes it behaves like a particle (quanta).

    I still think this plane, except if they had it in great numbers, would, as Martian says, be a sitting duck.

    1. Since there is no warning to a nuclear launch, the plane would have to patrol inside hostile territory to be able to respond immediately if there was a launch
    2. The plane would suck up a large amount of conventional forces to protect it (much like AWACS-planes, but they actually contribute to the fighting)
    3. The enemy would throw everything they had at the plane, as it is a close threat to its strategic assets

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