YAL-1 may do more than shoot down ICBMs

The YAL-1 Airborne Laser (ABL) is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles, but Boeing is looking to expand its portfolio to include more conventional targets, such as aircraft and cruise missiles.

"We have begun to do some work in simulation to show that there are capabilities for the weapon system in the future, and there are some changes that need to be made because we are optimised for ballistic missiles," says Mike Rinn, Boeing's ABL programme manager.

Boeing later clarified that the multi-mission capability is being developed within the company's internal research and defence budget.

Expanding the ABL's missions would require adapting sensors designed to detect the plume from a boosting rocket motor, as aircraft and cruise missiles have significantly lower thermal signatures. Rinn also says a multi-mission ABL would have to tap off-board radar platforms, such as the Boeing E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft.

With budgets for missile defence under special scrutiny, Boeing is also still hoping to maintain current plans to start developing a second ABL platform in FY2012. "It's important that we keep this momentum going for this critical technology that the USA has developed and move this into a second tail as soon as we can," Rinn says.

But the programme's long-term funding status is not secure. The YAL-1 faces a critical test in the third quarter of next year, when it is scheduled to attempt its first in-flight shootdown of a ballistic target. "I'd be foolish if I said it wasn't that important," Rinn says. "Even though we have brought down the risk with all the parts of the weapon system, there's nothing like flaming wreckage there to show the world that this is viable and that it works."

The MDA source agrees about the test's significance. Asked whether the agency supports funding to develop a second aircraft, he replies: "That's not going to be determined until after we have the shootdown."

On 24 November, Boeing completed the first ground firing of a fully integrated weapons system aboard the Boeing 747-based YAL-1. The 1MW-class beam powered by a chemical-oxygen-iodine laser was fired into a range diagnostics device and dumped into a calorimeter.

Boeing has not yet added ammonia to the mixture, which is necessary for a long-duration beam firing test. Those ground tests are scheduled to begin in late December or early January, Rinn says.

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