Up In Smoke

Photo by Myles RobinsonAfter billions of taxpayer dollars, two decades of research and innumerable failures, government and aerospace officials last month fired a laser in South County for 15 seconds and called it a milestone in the race to build an anti-missile defense system.

The test firing of the Air Force laser at aerospace giant TRW's Capistrano Test Site might seem modest to anyone with a working microwave oven, but it had officials crowing. Air Force Col. Mike Booen said the “robust test program” proved the “maturity of the laser technology.” Getting about as excited as an aerospace press person can, TRW's Steve Toner said the laser inside the test site's massive white domes “produced sufficient power to exceed by a significant margin the range requirements of an operational ABL system.”

“ABL” stands for Airborne Laser, and though the Air Force paints the $1.4 billion project in pure high-tech gloss, it's ultimately little more than a fat 747 with a much longer nose housing a TRW laser. Air Force planners foresee a day when such 747s could fly around in wartime using their lasers to knock down missiles midflight. By even the most optimistic predictions, that won't take place until 2009.

We're for anything—and we mean anything—that puts federal dollars into the hands of hard-working Orange Countians. But history—and logic—suggests deployment may take longer than that.

Shooting down missiles in flight seemed fantasy until the Gulf War. Then, Iraq's Saddam Hussein launched dozens of SCUD missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia. In the heat of war, American commanders claimed their Patriot anti-missile missiles were blasting the SCUDs out of the sky. Later investigations determined that no U.S. missile had ever intercepted a SCUD. Israelis and Arabs hadn't been saved by superior U.S. technology, in other words, but by inferior Iraqi science.

The Pentagon hopes the ABL will do what the Patriot failed to do. Here's how it's supposed to work:the ABL aircraft flies around a “rogue” nation at 40,000 feet. The nation launches a missile. If the sky is clear, the ABL can target it immediately—otherwise it waits until the missile punches through the clouds before locking on (clouds block laser light). The ABL then blasts the missile, slowly burning a hole through the missile's fuel-tank casing for the next minute. Then the missile blows up, dropping flaming wreckage—and an unexploded warhead—back upon whatever nation dared launch it in the first place.

There are a number of flaws in this plan. The one currently receiving the most media attention deals with turbulence, atmospheric disturbances that distort starlight, making stars appear to twinkle. In fact, turbulence disrupts all light, including lasers. The turbulence in this case comes from water vapor heated by the laser blast itself, and it can cause serious targeting problems.

The Air Force claims to have licked the turbulence problem. According to the Air Force, the ABL aircraft will operate in “thin air”—40,000 feet—where hardly any water vapor exists. “We can analyze atmospheric turbulence and other issues until the cows come home,” said ABL program director Booen in the August issue of the Aerospace America journal, “but we believe we already have a handle on them.”

An independent assessment team sent by Congress earlier this year to look at the Boeing, Lockheed and TRW plants and test centers throughout the ABL program disagrees. The team reported that “many technical obstacles and uncertainties remain,” especially problems concerning turbulence. Among other problems, the assessment team noted the Air Force didn't have nearly enough atmospheric sampling done in regions like Korea and the Middle East—regions the Air Force believes are the likeliest origins of a missile launch. The team also noted that testing lasers in labs (like TRW's Capistrano Site) is good, but the only way to make sure the ABL works is to test it “in a representative operational environment.” In other words, we need a war.

Even if the Air Force conquers the turbulence problem, and even if ABL prototypes blast test missile after test missile out of the sky, the laser-armed 747 may still be a write-off. That's because the Air Force is buying only seven aircraft. With such a small number, the Air Force has to be careful about deploying the planes. Earlier this year, the Pentagon bragged that it was deploying 24 Apache gunships to hunt tanks in Kosovo, then meekly sheltered the helicopters for the rest of the war. After the war, the Pentagon admitted it feared losing the helicopters if they actually went into combat.

In fact, the current ABL plan calls for all seven planes to stay in the U.S., sending up to five overseas within 24 hours of any “crisis.” Of course, such a plan assumes the U.S. deploys the ABL wing before any such crisis involves missiles. This naturally begs the question of what would happen if the U.S. didn't learn about any crisis until the missiles actually launched. In 1950, the U.S. knew nothing of any crisis in Korea until North Korean tanks actually started rumbling into the south. U.S. officials were caught similarly flat-footed when Iraqi tanks smashed into Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990.

Had either Kim Il Sung or Saddam Hussein chosen to open their campaigns with a barrage of tactical missiles, there would have been nothing for the ABLs to do, except maybe stooge around the still-smoking ruins of the country they were supposed to defend, vainly searching for new launches. In fact, the very presence of ABL anti-missile aircraft might spur future “rogue” nations to begin their wars exactly that way. Should that happen, the money and years of research spent on the ABL will have been for nothing. Which is rather how it looks right now.

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