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Air Force Chief Passes On Airborne Laser

by Greg on February 23, 2010

Headlines were ablaze earlier this month reporting the successful destruction of a ballistic missile by the Airborne Laser (ABL). While certainly a milestone in directed energy weapons development, the military appears not the least bit interested. As my colleague Colin Clark reports, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee today, Air Force chief Gen. Norton Schwartz unequivocally quashed any notion the Air Force would buy the flying vat of chemicals.

“Rep. Michael Turner, ranking member of the HASC strategic forces subcommittee, raised the recent success of the Airborne Laser in shooting a target. He asked if that would lead the Air Force to increase its commitment to directed energy weapons. Schwartz poured a fair amount of cold water on the Boeing program, calling the ABL test “a magnificent technical achievement” but “this does not represent something that is operationally viable.” The future “coin of the realm” is solid state lasers, Schwartz said, not the chemical laser that Boeing built.”

– Greg

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

@Earlydawn February 23, 2010 at 10:42 pm

I can't see this coming as a surprise. I've never seen the YAL-1 advertised as a prototype for an actual weapons platform. And I agree – this thing is a flying bomb. Much more interested in seeing solid-state and free-electron lasers, instead of unwieldy chemical beams.

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Dave_Mallette February 26, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Yes, the chemical laser is dangerous and toxic…COMPARED TO A 20meg NUKE????????? Good Lord protect us from our own generals.

SSL's are barely in the 100kw range while CL is already in the megawatt range. I think most of our pilots would be willing to risk flying these to protect us from ICBM attack.

Now, a look at the future based on historic fact. At the outbreak of WWII, all the major powers still based their naval strategy on the battleship. Thanks to Billy Mitchell, the US had at least built a few (4) aircraft carriers. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor completely obliterated the past 1000 years of naval tactics.

The successful ACL test just changed that again. The aircraft carrier is obsolete…and the battleship is back. A large ship is the ideal platform for these beasts and an Iowa or larger class battlewagon could bristle with them. No physical entity (aircraft or rocket) could get within 300 miles of one without being obliterated. The only defense against them? Having more of them and being the first to fire as you came within visual range…just like the old days. Of course, the winner will be the one with the most stealth, since the moment you have a direct line of fire at your enemy you fire and cannot miss.

Oh, I'm sure there will be plenty of "If that were true why aren't we doing this" etc. Good question. Why did we still manuver horse cavalry well into the 1930's? Why did we keep building battleships after Billy Mitchell destroyed one with a cheap canvas covered airplane and a bomb? Why are we hostage to foreign countries for raw materials and energy when we live right in the middle of an infinite supply of both.

Seems like we can't learn anything until we have a Pearl Harbor.

might point out that the laser equiped battlewagons would still be subject to attack by nuclear torpedoes fired from subs which sport the perfect defence against directed energy weapons. However, the conventional defences in place against attack subs still work pretty well. It actually makes the comparison to the classic 20th century battleship more compelling in that an Iowa class BS was equipped for all contingencies.

The subs bring up another point. CL equipped subs could destroy a merchant fleet with impunity by approaching undetected underwater, then surfacing and sinking the ships with its main battle lasers.

As I came to work this morning my eye wandered to the San Jacinto monument. The 1912 battleship Texas is moored there. I realized that old battlewagon with the top decks cleared and main turrets replaced with battle lasers would nearly be state of the art…except for stealth. Why? 14 inches of armor. Just like in the 20th century, steel armor would be the defence of choice against a battle laser as it would take a long time and a lot of power to burn through it.

BTW, that is another nail in the aircraft carrier coffin. Aside from its main means of defence being rendered useless by battle lasers, slapping 14 inches or so of armor on one would severely limit its speed and manueverbility that are required to launch and retrieve aircraft.

I don't claim expertise in these areas. It's just simple deductions based on available information. However, the results are profound and ignored at our great risk.

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Gabriel February 28, 2010 at 1:22 am

This project is a huge waste of money. Consider that Chinese ICBM's are thousands of miles inland, Iranian ICBM's are several hundred miles inland.

The curvature of the earth and atmospheric distortions prevent the ABL from being a viable weapon in these scenarios. They could never get close enough to shoot.

Sail a Cruiser with SM-2 and SM-3 in the Taiwan Straight, between Korea and Japan, off the coast of Israel, or in the North Sea and you have a flexible solution to protect Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Israel, or Northern/Southern Europe.

If you want "boost phase" mount NCAADE on the AMRAAM rails of every fighter on CAP in such a scenario.

Bottom line, ABL still doesn't work after $5 billion, and never had operational relevance.

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Dave February 28, 2010 at 12:24 am

Your commentary is very short sighted. If we can't build on this it simply suggests that the USA isn't what it used to be. 5 billion to have demonstrated an ability to completely eliminate the threat from ICBM's strikes me as a bargain.
Dave

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Dave February 28, 2010 at 12:20 am

Gabriel, you response is very short sighted and full of assumptions. The accomplishment speaks for itself. Directed energy has trumped physical delivery in version 1.0. 5 billion is a bargain for such a demo. If we can't build on this, it simply suggests USA isn't what it used to be.

Dave

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Valcan February 23, 2010 at 10:52 pm

The future “coin of the realm” is solid state lasers, Schwartz said, not the chemical laser that Boeing built.”

Good job boeing………Your using the same laser tech from what 1995?
Highly toxic: Check
Slow moving: Check
Bad manuverability: Check
Bad platform for technology: triple check

Laser tech is a win. Just not this laser tech chemical lasers are just not good for this.
——————————————————————————————————
You know i was wondering could they build a system using the same tech there developing for the C130 laser for use as a pod for something like a B52 or other bomber to mount on the wing pylons? Maybe make em more survivable vs SAMS and such.

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jack February 24, 2010 at 12:47 am

So the AF just wasted all that money buying 2 new modified 747-400Fs that will soon be in the Boneyard in AZ?

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bobbymike February 24, 2010 at 1:22 am

There is more to this system than chemicals. It demonstrated numerous technologies applicable to solid state lasers.

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Valcan February 24, 2010 at 1:48 am

Your right that is excellent but the fact that they keept using the chemical system after yrs of advancment in lasers that have shown that chemical lasers just arent worth it is bad.

The ABL has done its job it has proven the ability of lasers to be a real battlefield weapon. Now it needs to be redone with a smaller better system.

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Jeff February 24, 2010 at 11:11 am

Exactly, people forget this was largely a proof of concept project inteaded to to show it was possible to shoot from a moving plane a moving targets with a laser and reveal any potential problems in moving forward with lasers technology. It also kept the project cheaper since chemical laser technology was that much more mature.

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stephen russell February 24, 2010 at 1:48 am

Replace chem side & keep Laser side in nose.
EZ do?
or weight for solid state Lasers.
Keep ABL alone for that venue or use 797 platform.
Yes 797 Blended Wing body megaplane

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CJ- February 24, 2010 at 2:19 am

Doesn't mean they won't buy eventually, it just means they won't buy the chemical laser derivative. They can replace the chemical contraption with a solid state version while keeping all the targeting & systems they developed.

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Jeff M February 24, 2010 at 6:07 am

Solid state lasers are just barely 100kw, the chemical lasers have been megawatt class for a long time, they also cool better. Perhaps the general knows something we don't.

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Valcan February 24, 2010 at 6:49 pm

“a magnificent technical achievement” but “this does not represent something that is operationally viable.” The future “coin of the realm” is solid state lasers, Schwartz said, not the chemical laser that Boeing built.”

Yes he does

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Kevin February 24, 2010 at 8:08 am

We need this type of capability NOW and solid state lasers just don't provide this power in a compact airworthy scale. The investment will still pay for itself in the assets the ABL's will replace for air/space dominance. The investment will also further the USA's expertise a multitude of related technologies that will come into play when solid state technology is ready for this level of power output.
With missile proliferation, in general, and specific threats from NK, Iran, and the Chinese ASBM's, this capability is needed NOW.

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Gabriel February 28, 2010 at 1:31 am

Huh?

How exactly will this beast pay for itself? And exactly what laser equipped cargo planes will it replace?

Not operationally viable for Iran or China, an easy target for NK SA-5, and it still can't point after $5 billion and about 15 years.

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Tony C February 24, 2010 at 11:52 am

The optics stability to perform this feat is what the demonstration was all about, not the lasing components. The proof that a moving platform can be stable enough to hit a moving target will be used in future laser systems. The use of
this type system in a satellite based weapon is telling!!!

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John Moore February 24, 2010 at 3:15 pm

What about placing it on Battle ships?

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MikeB February 24, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Solid state lasers are still far behind chemical not only in power output, but also in power/weight ratio, which is critical for airborne platforms. There's a lot of great engineering in the ABL that won't go to waste, however, so no one (including Boeing) should shed a tear over this.
Also, if an unforeseen crisis developed (say, suspicious PRK launch preps), I think we can be sure that, just as JSTARS went to Kuwait in Gulf War 1 as a pre-operational system, ABL might also go to Japan (along with several other ABM systems also in various stages of development).

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Tome February 24, 2010 at 4:45 pm

The ABL is a tool to help advance other future projects, even if it is a chemical laser, it is still way ahead of solid state in the power output. Keep the tool, even if you don't use it to down ICBMs or other long range missiles, I bet you can still use it to do other forms of damage to Infrastructure, from long ranges that would not get attention like a missile launch would say like on a high pressure oil tank in an Iranian refinary. Or damage all enemy aircraft on the ramp of an airbase, a hole is a hole as they say.

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Neptune February 24, 2010 at 5:11 pm

The point was made that "the flying vat of chemicals" provided megawatts of power while the solidstate provides kilowatts; not the same league. Also, telling was the "not so successful" third test. The question posed is that indicative of pending design problems in controlling the megawatt power for repetitive use or is this a minor "evolving design" issue. That third test could raise significant technical issues with controls for all lasers in this power range. ABL is a success and will lead us to our future in directed energy weapons, but not now and maybe soon.

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ohwilleke February 24, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Headline Fail. "Passes On" means both "declines to approve", and "approves," depending on context. Since headlines are context free, it is a phrase that should never appear there.

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Curt February 25, 2010 at 9:56 am

Boeing didn't build the chemical laser, Northrop Grummand did. Boeing is just the system integrator and did not develop or build any of the lasers.

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nbjunk February 25, 2010 at 3:58 pm

It will be a long time – if ever – until the SSL's ever catch up with the Megawatt class ABL. That being said, SSL's may be "good enough" for smaller theater defense and ground attack roles. In that case as they shrink, they'll likely proliferate to F-35's (already discussed), C-130's (ATL), and perhaps B-52,B-1B, and B-2's.

People talk about how "close" the ABL must be to its targets, but ABL has a substantially longer range (400km? IIRC) than the SM-3. In the future it could perhaps reach its goal of 600km (again IIRC). It seems strange to give up such capability.

All that being said, there may be a role for the ABL in ASAT warfare. Flying at even 30,000 ft, the ABL will have bypassed much of the worst of the atmospheric interference. I'd suspect it can be tasked to take out satellites. Keep in inventory as an ABM system, but really plan on using it for ASAT.

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