The Missile Defense Agency has spent billions to trick out a Boeing 747 with a laser to shoot down missiles. But the so-called Airborne Laser Test Bed just failed a crucial test that it was expected to pass: shooting down a mock nuclear-armed missile from 100 miles away.
Sure, the flying laser was able to hit the dummy missile as it launched, reports Danger Room co-founder Sharon Weinberger, who broke the story
for AOL News. But it wasn’t able to send it crashing into the Pacific
Ocean during a September 1 test, as it was supposed to — and this was
after delaying the test four times. “Program officials will conduct an
extensive investigation to determine the cause of the failure to
destroy the target missile,” the agency emailed Weinberger.
The failure of the test raises the question of whether the
Pentagon’s continuing to spend money on what most in the national
security establishment believe to be a discredited sci-fi fantasy.
(Easy to see why they’d think that: “I believe we are building the
forces of good to beat the forces of evil,” a former MDA chief once
crowed. “We are taking a major step in giving the American people their first lightsaber.”)
Wonks have long since written the Airborne Laser off. Ellen Tauscher,
now the State Department’s senior-most arms control official, derided
the long-overdue $4 billion program as “the definition of insanity —
doing the same thing over and over despite failing each time.” Defense
Secretary Robert Gates gave the Airborne Laser program the ax during his 2009 defense budget war, leaving behind a single, experimental plane.
But then came an eleventh-hour boost for the Airborne Laser and its
congressional advocates. Last February, a residual flying laser successfully blasted a dummy missile from 50 miles away. That led Congress and the Pentagon to add $40 million to for continued testing.
From a technical perspective, even under optimal conditions, the
chemical-powered flying laser was probably never long for this world.
Chief Pentagon technologist Zach Lemnios told reporters last month
that he’s looking forward to lighter, electric-powered lasers that can
replace it without requiring a cavernous 747 for transport. (It’s part
of the Pentagon’s ongoing quest for real-life laser guns.)
He supported the Airborne Laser as way to work out energy weapon
subsystems before those electric lasers were good to go. But after
doubling the distance that the laser cannon had to zap a short-range
ballistic missile as it took flight — epic fail.
This was a test the Missile Defense Agency wanted — badly — for the
Airborne Laser to nail. After repeatedly delaying the test for various
technical reasons, the agency didn’t disclose the test’s failure for a
week, following inquiries from Weinberger. “We didn’t get any queries
till today,” spokesman Richard Lehner told her.
A much-anticipated test of a laser cannon deployed on a Boeing jumbo
jet failed to blow up a target meant to mimic a nuclear-tipped
The failure, which has not been previously
reported, occurred during an exercise that was supposed to demonstrate
the laser's ability to shoot down an incoming ballistic missile at a
range of over 100 miles. But the weapon prematurely stopped zapping the
missile and failed to destroy it.
test of an Airborne Laser, or laser cannon, housed in the nose cone of
a Boeing 747, like the one shown here, failed last week when the system
was unable to destroy its short-range ballistic missile target, the
Missile Defense Agency said.
The test of the Airborne Laser was conducted Sept. 1 at Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center-Weapons Division Sea Range off California's
central coast. Although the system successfully tracked and struck the
short-range ballistic missile target, it did not destroy it as planned,
the Missile Defense Agency said in a statement provided to AOL News.
officials will conduct an extensive investigation to determine the
cause of the failure to destroy the target missile," the agency said in
an e-mailed statement.
The chemical laser is housed in the nose
cone of a Boeing 747. The Pentagon had originally planned to buy and
field several of these laser-equipped aircraft; but citing technical
and operational problems with using such a weapon, Defense Secretary
Robert Gates halted those plans, opting instead to use the one weapon
already bought for testing the laser technology.
shoot-down test of the weapon, conducted earlier this year, was a
success. It's unclear what impact last week's failure may have on the
program, which still receives tens of millions of dollars in funding.