Photo by Myles RobinsonThough we live in a world threatened by anonymous anthrax mailings, explosives-packed sneakers and teenage-girl suicide bombers, Pentagon officials and President George W. Bush still pretend the real danger is elsewhere: intercontinental ballistic missiles. To destroy these missiles, which haven't been used in war in more than a decade, Bush and his generals want lasers—lots of large, powerful lasers—mounted in all sorts of strange places.
The most interesting of these high-tech weapons is the Airborne Laser (ABL). Wedged into the belly of a Boeing 747 with a turret on the nose, the ABL would fly around places like Iraq or North Korea waiting for a SCUD-type missile launch. Then the ABL would zap (or "negate," as the Pentagon's zoomies like to say) the missile before it reaches the upper atmosphere.
Air Force press releases gush over these lumbering laser-armed airliners, a project the department considers one of its "highest priority programs." Another "fact sheet," dated March 2002, predicts that "a fully operational aircraft" will be in the air "later in the decade."
But on July 12, the lasers took a direct hit. That's when the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report on the ABL program that roasted the Pentagon's previous assurances. The report, which received virtually no media play, shoots down previous Pentagon promises that the ambitious laser-armed planes were on budget and on schedule. The report also shows that the laser—designed and currently tested at TRW's Capistrano Test Site in the hills overlooking San Clemente—is far from ready.
Bush recently transferred the ABL program to the infant Missile Defense Agency, with its managers exempt from Congressional budget oversight or deadlines.
Here's what we do know. Six years ago, the Air Force said the system—totaling just seven laser-armed aircraft, all of them based in the continental United States—would cost $2.5 billion and wouldn't be deployed until 2006. According to the GAO, those numbers were pure fantasy.
"In 1996, at program launch, the Air Force did not have enough knowledge about the technology challenges facing the program," reported the GAO. "As a result, the Air Force underestimated the complexity of the engineering task at hand and misjudged the amount of time and money that the program would need."
Today, the GAO puts the cost at $3.7 billion, with the deployment date delayed another four years to 2010. Cost overruns in the Pentagon are old news. What makes this case so unusual is that there's no telling how many more billions of dollars the ABL will consume.
"Some critical technologies that the system's design depends upon remain immature, making it very difficult, even today, for analysts to establish realistic cost and schedule goals," reported the GAO.
Some of these "immature technologies" include safety systems to prevent the laser from going haywire, devices that stabilize the laser in the aircraft, optics and mirrors to focus the laser beam, and devices to compensate for atmospheric turbulence.
The last is particularly important. Turbulent air, even in the upper atmosphere, tends to skew and diffuse light beams. Unless engineers can find a way to compensate for churning air masses, the ABL—indeed, any anti-missile laser—simply will not work.
For years, Air Force officials have insisted turbulence was not an issue in ABL development. Way back in 1999, then-program director Mike Booen insisted in the August issue of Aerospace Americajournal that "we can analyze atmospheric turbulence and other issues until the cows come home, but we believe we already have a handle on them."
Clearly, Booen was blowing smoke. In fact, on a standard industry-readiness scale of one to nine, with product development ready at level seven, the GAO soberly places the laser at a miserable level four—years away from even the prototype stage, with actual field deployment delayed to an unknown date in the future.