Airborne Laser fails critical test

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 ballistic missile.

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. 

Boeing Laser Aircraft

The 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.

"Program 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.

The first 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.

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