..and no, I"m not referring to the upcoming Presidential election. The Pentagon has announced that, two years hence, the Airborne Laser (or ABL) will conduct its first attempted intercept of an airborne missile. The test is viewed as a critical milestone for the missile defense system, and will be preceded by a series of system checks and other evaluations, designed to ready the system for the milestone event.
This recent article, posted by MSNBC.com, gives a fairly detailed run-down of the test and evaluation hurdles facing the ABL. And while cancellation does not appear to be an imminent threat, a failure in the 2008 test would be a major setback for the program, and re-ignite the chorus of nay-sayers who have opposed missile defense since Ronald Reagan first proposed it back in the early 1980s.
What's missing from the article--predictably--is the incredible advances in missile defense technology over the past two decades. The ABL is a technical marvel, employing three lasers, fired from a modified Boeing 747 airframe; two low-powered lasers are used to track the missile and measure atomspheric distortion, while the third (a high-powered chemical laser) destroys the target. If it works, the ABL will allow the U.S. to zap missiles in the boost phase, as they rise from their launch sites, the period when they are most vulnerable and easiest to engage.
But the ABL isn't the only breakthrough. Along with the high-powered optics, computers and lasers that form the system, other research teams have achieved breakthroughs in terminal missile defenses. Israel, for example, has deployed the ARROW II anti-missile system, making the Jewish state the only nation in the world with a dedicated, missile defense system. The Arrow II is capable of handling medium range ballistic missiles, including Iran's SHAHAB-3, which have terminal velocities beyond the capabilities of early anti-missile systems, such as the U.S. Patriot. Of course, the Patriot has also been dramatically improved over the past 15 years; during the invasion of Iraq three years ago, Patriot batteries achieved an almost 100% kill rate against short-range Iraqi missiles, a far cry from Desert Storm, when (by some estimates) Patriot batteries downed less than 20% of the missiles they targeted. The Navy's AEGIS system has also been modified for missile defense, and advanced naval SAMs are also capable of engaging ballistic missiles. Collectively, these systems can provide a layered theater defense against SRBM and MRBM targets.
Of course, no missile defense system is perfect. Most are vulnerable to saturation (a tactic China would likely employ against Taiwan), decoys, and maneuvering re-entry vehicles. But the good news is that some adversaries lack these capabilities, and with further upgrades, these systems will become even more effective. Having the ABL will accelerate that trend; knocking down missiles in the boost phase--near their launch sites--means you've got fewer to intercept over your own territory. That makes the ABL an integral part of our missile defense plans, assuming it meets performance standards, and we can find money in the DOD budget. At a reported $1 billion an aircraft, it's a very expensive system. And there will be other, ancillary costs as well. The ABL will need escort fighters, air refueling, intelligence collection and battle management assets to support it. Many of those assets are already in the inventory, but supporting the ABL will place an even greater demand on already-limited assets.
But how do you put a price on a weapon that could wreak havoc among an adversary's ballistic missile forces. That tantilizing prospect makes ABL a risk worth taking--if it proves it can do the job. We'll find out in 2008.