Missile Beats Flying Lightsaber In Crucial Test
By Spencer Ackerman
September 8, 2010
Missile 1, Flying Laser 0. So much for America's real-
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.
Except not really. Danger Room editor Noah Shachtman,
who's been writing about the Airborne Laser's various
tests (and all other laser weapons, for that matter),
emailed the agency on August 27 for any and all
information about the imminent California test. The
As Weinberger writes, it's unclear what's going to
happen to the Airborne Laser. Sure, it's track record
is, ahem, uneven. But the plane is a congressional
favorite because - hello, flying missile-zapping laser.
Just FYI: the money for the Airborne Laser - $146
million, this year alone - runs out this month. Then it
flies off into an uncertain future.
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