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ABL’s Successful Shootdown

by christian on February 12, 2010

Video of a recent test shot of Boeing’s ABL test plane shooting down a short-range ballistic missile.

According to a Boeing release…

This experiment marks the first time a laser weapon has engaged and destroyed an in-flight ballistic missile, and the first time that any system has accomplished it in the missile’s boost phase of flight. ALTB has the highest-energy laser ever fired from an aircraft, and is the most powerful mobile laser device in the world.

During the experiment, the aircraft, a modified Boeing 747-400F, took off from Edwards Air Force Base and focused its high-energy laser at the missile target during its boost phase as the aircraft flew over the Western Sea Range off the coast of California.

And from the Missile Defense Agency:

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.

– Christian

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

gsak February 12, 2010 at 9:50 pm

It would be interesting to see how reflective armor affects system performance.

Also, I wonder if a wet or steam/smoke coating subsystem would defeat this attack?

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Marcase February 12, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Doubtfull if those would be applicable on an ICBM. ABL's range is (for now) too short to be really effective. A fighter CAP with AMRAAMs (NCADE!) could produce the same result, without endangering the big lumbering – ntm unarmed – B747.

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Thunder350 February 13, 2010 at 12:42 am

Produce a couple, continue testing. Send some to Iran and North Korea to get some field testing. :)

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SMSgt Mac February 13, 2010 at 2:52 am

There were two missiles engaged. After the first one was shot down, another solid-motor missile was launched from SNI off of Mugu. and the ABL successfully detected tracked and engaged it. The second was not destroyed but I suspect fro mthe phrasing of the results that it wa sa 'bonus' and not the part of the primary test objectives. Range was classified, but if one views how slowly the missile in the video is moving, one can deduce the engagement was fairly long range. LATimes 'experts' estimate around 100 miles. For the first kill. Consider the possibilities. I know there's a lot of new 'love' out there for the solid state systems that have really progressed the past few years, but both technology paths have advantages and potential.
I see pursuing both paths to a fielded capability until one proves unsuitable is the prudent course of action.

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Dwight February 13, 2010 at 2:55 am

Could they make a use once or twice version and
mount it on a ABM to get it close up and personal to
the target.? And then program the ABM to hit as well.

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SMSgt Mac February 13, 2010 at 3:00 am

LA Times also reports the ABL shot down a missile on Feb 3, so perhaps this is shot #2?

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Valcan February 13, 2010 at 4:01 am

Does the ABL still use the chemical process to fire. Cant we replace the same power with electrical generation?

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elgatoso February 13, 2010 at 5:21 am

The ABL use the chemical pracess.We can replace with solid state laser that is electrically generated.

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CJ- February 13, 2010 at 5:11 am

It really doesn't matter what the range is today or if it can be counter-measured, this is a successful proof of the technology. Before you know it 10 years will pass and the system will have range & power that today we can only dream of. Science/technology will march on and this will be one hell of a weapon system.

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Lava February 13, 2010 at 6:57 am

Considering how much easier it would be to shoot down jets, isn't the real potential of the ABL an air superiority weapon that would make all aircraft instantly obsolete?

A few of these can loiter in the airspace hundreds of miles away and literally shoot down anything that takes to the air.

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Curtis February 13, 2010 at 7:38 am

I'd say targeting a supersonic fighter sized aircraft would be extremely challenging, Sure a missile moves fast, but usually just in one direction. If the fighter goes low altitude, it'll get lost in the ground and atmospheric clutter. (denser air, water vapor, dust, etc) there's also the potential collateral damage risk of shooting the laser downward vs upward. You're liable to burn down a village two countries over.

As far as coating countermeasures go (reflective skin, steam, etc) not gonna work. You might delay burn through by a fraction of a microsecond, but when you're throwing that much thermal radiation on to such a tiny area, its going to take more then a mirror finish to reflect it. Cloud cover pose acquisition challenges, and steam or smoke generation might theoretically fuzzy up the target acquisition a little, but thats' doubtful if the 747 is getting additional targeting data from other platforms via datalink.

Microseconds count, but they don't count enough.

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daniel February 13, 2010 at 9:40 pm

good point and well spoken

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Lava February 14, 2010 at 1:33 pm

It would not be hard to target a fighter because any ABL would be stationed hundreds of miles away. There's no way fleets of jet are going to be janking around for the entire duration of their flight to close the gap of hundreds of miles. And all that janking would actually increase the chances of the fighter being detect.

In all probability, the jet would not even be able to see the ABLs on their radars so they wouldn't have know when to start to take evasive action before they would be within laser range.

Also, how long can a jet go supersonic? Answer: not long enough to be useful to avoid being targeted by the ABL.

The issues you raise also affect targeting a ballistic missile (denser air, water vapor, dust) have already been solved with the kilowatt lasers being used to "tune" the megawatt laser to adjust for atmospheric effects.

Flying low is not going to help because the ABL will be looking down on targets from the altitude it'll be operating at.

And laser beams are coherent, meaning the target spot is still just a small spot hundreds of miles away. Even with a miss, it's not going to be burning down any villages. For one thing, the beam is always following a moving target meaning it would never hit the same spot on the ground for more than a millisecond even if it misses. Probably not enough time to start any village fires.

Even if the enemy fighters have the use of a AWACS to see the ABLs from hundreds of miles away, the ABL would logically take out the AWACS first, leaving the fighters effectively blind until they get much closer.

As good as modern fighters are, it doesn't matter how fast they can go. You can't outrun the speed of light. I would bet just a few ABLs in the air at the same time would be enough to ensure total air superiority over a theater of battle. If the ABLs get to standoff position first, you could even pick off jets while they are still sitting on the tarmac or coasting down the runway.

ABL is a game changer for air superiority, not just ballistic missile defense.

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Brandon February 14, 2010 at 12:10 am

So the range is classified?

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Dommo February 14, 2010 at 3:11 am

I think the bigger use for the ABL is for killing Taliban/Al Qaeda leadership. If this thing can burn holes in metal missile casings at 200 miles, then imagine what it could do to a person at 10 or 20.

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Brandon February 14, 2010 at 4:14 am

for a second there i thought you were talking about 10 to 20 feet and i was going to be like don't you think they would notice that? but yes i see what your talking about now interesting idea. Also talk about 0 collateral damage.

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Joe February 14, 2010 at 8:40 am

Seems we need to get Val Kilmer on the job then. I am pretty sure I have seen something on this before.

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bdwilcox February 14, 2010 at 1:46 pm

And popcorn…lots of popcorn.

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guest February 15, 2010 at 12:08 am

It takes light about 6.2 usec to travel one mile. 100 miles means approx 620 usec. I would be surprised if anyone has reaction times that fast. Now as to the burn through, light aluminium is pretty easy to cut with a laser and if you start melting out basketball sized chucks of the skin, throwing molten metal into the guts of the aircraft (melts through wiring pretty easily, you might be talking about bringing down the aircraft. Thought that this might ultimately mean the end to manned fighter aircraft.

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Ron Burgundy February 15, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Nice IR imagery. Shout-out to the HALO-I crew!

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Jeff M February 15, 2010 at 1:15 pm

This weapon will be perfected when they increase the power by 2x or more, imagine if it were 10x as powerful. The problem with solid state lasers is the stuff you are producing the light with needs to be cooled, with this chemical laser you just vent the hot gas exhaust out the back of the ship. Cooling is a bigger problem than fuel.

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Maxtrue February 15, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Could one have secondary craft or ground bases beam microwave power to ABL, that is, could one augment the energy requirement of ABL aircraft and lower weight by a speed of light relay system?

A while back I asked if ABL optical fire system could be applied to other laser systems? It seemed the answer here was no. What parts of this ABL technology are transferable? I suspect the cooling needs would lessen for solid state laser high altitude ABL system far enough out where it is normally very cold.

At what point will lasers prompt air craft shielding? Could active skins, perhaps ones that could instantaneously generate local plasma formation disrupt such a laser? Perhaps stealth skins and protective skins meet an engineering convergence. Will such a energy shielded rigid airship perhaps with bend-light camouflage be the answer for future theater defense? You could put one up over a naval battle group positioned near an adversarial coast line (gulf). In the future, perhaps, only shielded air craft, drones or cruise missiles could get to their target past laser defenses.

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Guest February 16, 2010 at 4:06 am

Aim for the cockpit. Molten plastic (canopy and helmet) wrapped around the pilot's head would pretty much put an end to that mission.

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Matt Musson February 16, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Actually – the missile contained a capsule of deuterium and tritium encased in gold. The Boeing laser was attempting to fuse the two to produce helium and give off excess heat.

This was part of the Boeing ITER joint fusion test.

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Curt February 18, 2010 at 9:40 am

The ABL destroyed the target after almost 2 minutes of flight. By logical assumption, you can assume that the missile was well above any cloud cover as well as the denser parts of the atmosphere. Given that making a liquid fueled rocket fail is significantly easier than a solid fuel rocket or an aircraft, you can probably assume that aircraft at lower altitudes would be safe, at least for awhile. However, the possibility of targeting high flying aircraft, like AWACS planes, seems reasonable as do low flying sattelites.

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