After nearly 16 years of development and more than $5 billion spent, culminating in a series of ballistic missile target engagements, the Pentagon has finally decided to mothball the Boeing-led 747-400F project known as the Airborne Laser.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency is now looking toward a new generation of lasers that could operate on unmanned vehicles at very high altitudes owing to advancements in laser technology, power generation and beam control work made possible in part by the foundation laid in the ABL years.

The program was established by the U.S. Air Force in the 1990s with an aim of employing a multi-megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) to burn through the propulsion systems of boosting ballistic missile targets, sending the rockets and their potentially lethal payloads raining back down upon the area from which they were launched.

Despite finally shooting down its first target last year, ABL has cratered under the substantial funding required for its work, cost-prohibitive and improbable employment scenarios and, most recently, pressure on the Pentagon budget resulting from growing national debt.

Though ABL found itself on death row awaiting termination multiple times in the past decade, the industry team and MDA, which took over management of the program in 2001, managed to keep it alive. Finally, in February 2010, the ABL engaged and destroyed its first test target — a solid-rocket fueled Terrier Black Brant rocket. This was followed just more than a week later by another shootdown, this time of a liquid-fueled foreign missile target.

MDA Director Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly is now focused on a new generation of laser systems with “much denser capability or greater power lasers in smaller packages and operating at much higher altitudes,” he told a gathering hosted by the Huntsville, Ala., Chamber of Commerce Dec. 12. This, he says, will simplify future designs.

“We do believe we are very close … within a few years of having a prototype that will actually operate out of an unattended air vehicle at very high altitudes,” O’Reilly said. “We basically have a horse race going on between several different technologies [and] all of them are very promising.” He predicts that “we have that capability to achieves something with a very high-altitude UAV over this decade.”

Details of this project were not provided by MDA.

Advances since the start of ABL in electric-powered solid-state lasers, however, are likely where the future lies if scientists manage to solve the problem of generating enough power for the lasers to have operational benefit at significant ranges and fired from small, mobile platforms.

Retaining skills

Meanwhile, not all of ABL is lost or mothballed. Boeing has recommended that MDA retain 20 engineers and scientists versed in beam control/fire control, jitter and platform dynamics disciplines “to ensure transfer of knowledge and lessons to future high-power directed-energy programs.

With the official demise of ABL, Boeing’s position in the missile defense market is even more dependent on its precarious, and potentially short-term, control of the Ground Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) ballistic missile shield program, which includes a global network of sensors and interceptors in Alaska and California.

MDA is competing the work, which has been exclusively handled by Boeing, and a source selection between Boeing/Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin/Raytheon is expected as soon as this month.

Given ABL’s end, if Boeing loses the GMD contract the company could find itself going from the prominent missile defense integrator in the U.S. to a mere supplier to its onetime rivals.