ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. –
A typical-looking 747 aircraft on the flight line here June 21 - distinguishable from other 747s only by its glass, bulb-shaped nose - could one day be the silver bullet that shoots ballistic missiles out of the sky.
But what's revolutionary about the prototype Airborne Laser aircraft, which arrived June 21 after its first nonstop cross-country flight, is that it won't use bullets to take out its target, explained Col. John Daniels, program director.
It will use a laser beam.
"What makes this revolutionary is that you can engage targets at the speed of light - 186,000 miles per second," Colonel Daniels said. "So we can go from New York to Los Angeles before you can blink your eye. Think about that. You can't blink your eye faster than this weapon system or a beam of light goes across the country."
The Airborne Laser is being developed as an integral part of the ballistic missile defense system to protect the United States, its allies and its deployed troops against a ballistic missile attack, he explained. An advanced detection-and-tracking system, state-of-the-art optics and a high-energy laser would detect a missile launch and track it during the boost phase.
The world's largest turret assembly, encased in the glass-enclosed aircraft nose, would track the missile and determine a precise aim point. A laser would measure disturbances in the atmosphere and adjust the on-board optics to account for them.
Another laser would fire a beam - technically, a "megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser beam" - to zap the missile until it broke apart.
As futuristic as this concept sounds, the Airborne Laser project is moving steadily forward. Flight tests on the Airborne Laser are slated to wrap up this summer at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
The chemical laser has had more than 70 successful firings over the past three years, and will be installed aboard the aircraft starting later this year in preparation for the first shootdown of a ballistic missile target, scheduled in mid-2009.
"We are going to put that big laser in the back ... and then we're ready to shoot a missile down," Colonel Daniels said. "So it's a pretty exciting time to be on the program. The biggest challenge we have right now is integration. The optics system is working. The battle management system works well. We even tracked an (intercontinental ballistic missile) with the sensors on the airplane. The laser works well on the ground."
Putting all that capability together and having it operate effectively is a much more significant step, he said.
"When you put those big pieces together, and you get the software talking to each other and the systems, that's not trivial. It's really an integration challenge," he said. "No miracles are needed, but the integration step is not easy."
Lessons learned from this initial prototype, with the tail number "0001," will be incorporated into a "production representative" model that is easier to operate and maintain and less expensive to build, he said. "That's the whole purpose of this plane, to give us those lessons learned so we know what to do different on the second airplane."