August 13, 2007
“PEACE THROUGH LIGHT”
The latest case of missile defense and its enemies
JOHN J. MILLER
Friday the 13th may not be the most auspicious date for a high-stakes missile-defense test, but it didn’t bother Air Force Col. John Daniels. “We had no concerns,” he says. Indeed, the plane that he and many others have spent years building worked just about perfectly on that star-crossed night in July. It took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California, tracked a flying target, and successfully aimed its weapon system. The plane didn’t open fire, but it came closer than ever before to demonstrating the ability to shoot down an enemy missile with a laser.
The Airborne Laser program (ABL) is about two years away from attempting to perform that pioneering feat. If Daniels and his team succeed in destroying a mock warhead in 2009, ABL has the potential to become an indispensable part of U.S. missile-defense strategy. “We’re on the verge of changing the fundamental physics of war,” says Daniels.
Before that can happen, however, ABL must overcome its political opponents in Washington. Earlier this year, Democrats moved to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from the program. It’s the type of budget battle that the Capitol hasn’t seen since the Clinton years, when missile-defense hawks in a GOP-controlled Congress routinely clashed with an administration that didn’t share their military priorities. The branches of government have changed but the conflict of visions remains the same. ABL’s schedule might suffer a delay of two years, or worse. “The program could come to a screeching halt,” warns Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. “Trey” Obering, who heads the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency. “These proposed cuts threaten to cripple it.”
ABL may be high-tech, but boys armed with magnifying glasses have long appreciated the lethal power of light, to the detriment of ant colonies everywhere. Some credit the Greek mathematician Archimedes with using mirrors to reflect sunlight and incinerate a Roman fleet more than 2,000 years ago. More recently, lasers have occupied the hyperactive minds of science-fiction writers and movie directors. When liberals lampooned Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative as “Star Wars,” they meant to imply that it was pure fantasy.
In reality, laser weapons began to assume practical shape in the early 1980s. An Air Force program even destroyed a few drones and missiles in flight. But its primitive laser was bulky, unreliable, and potentially hazardous — similar in its way to those old-fashioned cannons that occasionally blew up on their own artillery crews. The program was ended and the plane that carried this groundbreaking laser is now warehoused at the Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio.
Several years later, however, the Gulf War demonstrated the importance of missile defenses and highlighted the need for a weapon that could attack an enemy missile shortly after launch. By 1996, the Airborne Laser program was in full swing. Even then, it had skeptics. “When I went to work on the original proposal, I thought it would be a good way to kill a few months before a real job came along,” says Don Clapp of Boeing, which coordinates the project with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Today, Clapp is Boeing’s chief engineer for ABL. “We’ve never hit a problem where we looked each other in the eye and said, ‘We can’t do this.’”
Although ABL represents newfangled technology, the outside of the plane looks almost like an ordinary 747. There are no passenger windows and it’s coated in the dull gray paint that the Pentagon must purchase by the supertanker-load. The nose betrays the plane’s extreme makeover: It’s sheared off, and in its place is mounted a knobby turret that holds what appears to be a huge searchlight.
“It’s the world’s biggest contact lens,” says Daniels. Three lasers shoot through it. The first one tracks a target. The second measures the atmosphere so that the lens can compensate for distortions. This prepares the way for the third laser — a high-energy, megawatt-class chemical oxygen-iodine laser. It concentrates a powerful beam on an enemy rocket’s fuel casing. Total annihilation takes only a few seconds. The range of the laser is classified, though officials admit that the figure is “hundreds of kilometers.”
Homely but potentially invaluableUSAF Photo by Jim Shryne
All told, ABL is an incredibly robust defensive weapon. The launch of a traditional anti-ballistic interceptor — the type currently deployed in Alaska and California and that the Bush administration also would like to place in Poland — is an all-or-nothing proposition. It zeroes in on a single target. If it hits, the interceptor obliterates itself in the process. ABL, by contrast, can shoot at multiple targets. It’s like a missile-defense base with wings.
The concept of ABL is to attack missiles in their boost phase — a short period immediately after takeoff, when they’re larger and slower than they will be at any other point in their trajectories. And because ABL destroys missiles near their launch sites, it can provide missile-defense coverage to the whole planet, instead of the regional defense offered by other programs. Any fallout from the wreckage, moreover, would occur near the launch site, rather than close to a missile’s target. ABL would defend against ICBMs as well as theater-range missiles such as Scuds and anti-satellite missiles of the variety that China tested earlier this year.
On June 21, ABL paid a brief visit to Andrews Air Force Base, just beyond Washington’s beltway in Maryland. With budget cuts looming, the Pentagon wanted to show off the plane to members of Congress as well as the press. I went on an early-morning tour.
If ABL’s exterior looks roughly like a 747, the interior is completely different. Designers have gutted it to make room for a cramped maze of computers, wires, and tubes. “It’s like building a ship in a bottle,” says Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s program director. The laser is generated in the rear of the aircraft, amid six modules that function as batteries for the weapon, each one the size of a Chevy Suburban. The beam travels in tubes to the front of the plane, then through a massive mirror-filled device nicknamed “the wall of fire,” and finally out the turret.
The challenge of making all the pieces work is daunting, and has led to higher price tags and longer timelines. In 1996, the Pentagon foresaw a program that would cost $2.5 billion and become operational in 2006. Today, ABL has cost more than $4 billion and is still undergoing tests. “This is a complex job,” says Hyslop. “It’s much more difficult than what people originally had thought.” The hardware is state-of-the-art, the software contains millions of lines of code, and the plane’s mirrors must be kept in such a pristine condition that they’re more efficient than those used in telescopes that look at quasars on the edge of the universe. “You can count on your hands and toes the number of experts who truly understand what we’re doing,” says Obering.
The technical aspect of ABL is just about proven — all of the component parts appear to work. The plane has demonstrated the ability to do almost everything it needs to do short of firing the high-energy laser in the turbulent conditions of an actual flight. “At this point, we don’t need a technological miracle,” says Daniels. Success is no longer a matter of invention, but engineering.
If ABL proves its worthiness when the laser is tested in two years’ time, then the prototype will become available for emergencies — when North Korea threatens to test a long-range missile over the Sea of Japan, for instance. The next step is to build a production model. The Pentagon currently hopes to stock seven ABLs in its arsenal. Fighter jets would defend them and refueling aircraft would keep them aloft. “In 24 hours, we can have the ABL anywhere in the world,” says Air Force Capt. Tim O’Grady.
As long as it’s finished, that is. In May, the House Armed Services Committee approved a spending plan that hacks $250 million from a request of $549 million for ABL. That’s bad enough, but it’s actually an improvement over the $400 million a subcommittee had recommended removing — a step that would all but eviscerate the program. In the Senate, a plan to wipe out $200 million is about to reach the floor and Christopher Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, plans to offer an amendment that would eliminate ABL’s funding entirely.
On July 11, the top U.S. commander in South Korea urged Congress to reconsider. “We estimate that North Korea has around 800 [theater-range] missiles in their operational inventory,” wrote Army Gen. B. B. Bell. “Intercepting these missiles during their boost phase while still over North Korean territory would be a huge combat multiplier for me.”
During the Cold War, the doctrine of “peace through strength” animated U.S. foreign policy, especially under Reagan. When ABL was at Andrews AFB in June, Jason Brewster, a Boeing contractor, wore a green jumpsuit with a patch on the sleeve that suggested a slightly different approach: “peace through light.”