It was always an ambitious plan: Develop the world’s most powerful airborne laser, integrate it on a large airliner and use it to shoot down ballistic missiles at the most opportune time–during the boost phase. Go operational in 2007. But after spending almost $5 billion on the airborne laser (ABL) in 15 years, the MDA redesignated it as the airborne laser test bed (ALTB). However, in February last year the ALTB finally succeeded in destroying two test missiles. The program continues, researching such challenges as jitter from the airborne platform and atmospheric compensation for the laser.
The ALTB fires a megawatt-class chemical oxygen-iodine laser (COIL) from inside a Boeing 747-400F. Two kilowatt-class eliminator lasers are also carried in huge nose turret, to track the ascending target prior to attacking it. The airliner first flew in 2002 and the COIL was first ground-tested in 2004. Boeing is responsible for overall system integration, Northrop Grumman provides the COIL and Lockheed Martin is responsible for the tracking and fire control system.
But even if attacking ballistic missiles as they ascend has proved impractical for now, there is plenty of interest in acquiring the earliest possible tracks of them from an airborne platform. In addition to developing new satellites for tracking, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency has a program called AirBorne InfraRed (ABIR), which uses a Reaper UAV equipped with a standard Raytheon multispectral targeting system turret. In Europe, Diehl has developed a combined MWIR and LWIR airborne sensor that also detects missiles plumes in the boost phase.