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ABL Flies, but Government Agency Warns Sky Is Not Clear

September 2002

By Wade Boese

An aircraft designed to carry a laser that would shoot down ballistic missiles shortly after their launch made its inaugural test-flight July 18. The flight came just days after the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that certain technology key to building the laser has not yet been sufficiently developed and that the program lacks clear criteria for determining when the aircraft will be ready for production and use.

The Airborne Laser (ABL) aircraft, a modified Boeing 747, took off from a Kansas air base and flew for about 90 minutes in its first flight, which was aimed at testing the plane’s airworthiness after several modifications, including the installation of a 12,000-pound rotating turret in its nose. Because the laser is not yet fully developed and has not been installed, the aircraft was loaded with metal bearings to help stabilize it.

Since the July 18 flight, the aircraft has flown six additional times. An Air Force spokesperson reported that the flights have gone well, although program officials removed a pod on top of the plane because they believed it was causing air turbulence problems. The pod is designed to house a laser that will track missile targets.

There is no exact schedule for how many more flights will be conducted this year. “We will do as many as necessary to verify satisfactory performance of the aircraft,” the Air Force spokesperson explained.
Current plans, however, call for the Air Force to begin installing the laser next year. During that process, the aircraft will be grounded.

The first ABL attempt to intercept a ballistic missile in flight is scheduled for late 2004, and an official deployment date is set for 2010, although the Pentagon wants two or three ABL aircraft ready for emergency use between 2006 and 2008. When the Air Force initiated the program in 1996, it
originally estimated that it would start to deploy ABL aircraft by 2006.

GAO Critiques ABL

In a July 12 report on the ABL program, GAO charged that the Air Force had underestimated the difficulty of the project, leading to ill-informed estimates about how long it would take to develop the system and what it would cost. GAO is a nonpartisan body tasked with carrying out studies and investigations requested by members of Congress.

To date, $1.7 billion has been spent on ABL. The Air Force initially projected that ABL development would total $2.5 billion, but last year that estimate jumped to $3.7 billion. GAO, however, reported that predicting realistic costs remains “very difficult” because important ABL technologies are still unproven. The cost of the system may therefore continue to rise.

Although finding that some progress has been made in developing ABL, GAO reported that the devices intended to stabilize the laser, as well as the mirrors and windows used to focus and guide the laser beam, have not yet shown that they can work as part of an overall system. GAO determined that the target-tracking hardware, safety systems, and devices that help adjust for air turbulence are more advanced, but said that they are not yet ready for incorporation into a final system. Program officials shared these assessments, according to the GAO report.

GAO and program officials differed only in their evaluations of the laser itself. Program officials ranked it as being further along in the development process than did GAO, which does not believe the laser has proven itself capable of functioning as part of a broader system.

Program officials have only tested a one-module laser with surrogate components under controlled conditions. The laser to be installed on the aircraft next year is intended to be comprised of six modules, although original plans set the requirement for a 14-module laser. (Laser energy is generated within a module; the more modules there are, the more powerful the laser will be.) Air Force officials initially set the weight limit of the 14-module laser at less than 175,000 pounds, but the six-module laser is projected to weigh about 180,000 pounds, suggesting that the program may be having design difficulties.

In addition to highlighting the program’s immature technologies, GAO charged that there is no “disciplined process” by which program officials can effectively manage the program’s development toward production. GAO said the program lacks criteria by which officials can judge whether the program is ready to go from one development stage to the next.

If the ABL program does not institute a clearly defined process for moving the system through the various stages of development, GAO warned that the Pentagon faces “greater cost and schedule risks.”

After reading a preliminary draft of the GAO report, the Pentagon said that it does have such a process in place, explaining that technologies and systems under development move forward when testing proves them reliable.