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Airborne laser testbed successful in lethal intercept experiment

The YAL-1A, a modified Boeing 747-400F known as the Airborne Laser, lands at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The Airborne Laser Testbed successfully destroyed a boosting ballistic missile Feb. 11 over the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The YAL-1A, a modified Boeing 747-400F known as the Airborne Laser, lands at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The Airborne Laser Testbed successfully destroyed a boosting ballistic missile Feb. 11 over the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Air Force photo)

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Missile Defense Agency officials demonstrated the potential use of directed energy to defend against ballistic missiles when the Airborne Laser Testbed successfully destroyed a boosting ballistic missile Feb. 11 over the Pacific Ocean.

The experiment, conducted at Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center-Weapons Division Sea Range off the central California coast, serves as a proof-of-concept demonstration for directed energy technology.

The Airborne Laser Testbed is a pathfinder for the nation's directed energy program and its potential application for missile defense technology.

At 8:44 p.m. PST Feb. 11, a short-range threat-representative ballistic missile was launched from an at-sea mobile launch platform. Within seconds, the Airborne Laser Testbed used onboard sensors to detect the boosting missile and used a low-energy laser to track the target. The Airborne Laser Testbed then fired a second low-energy laser to measure and compensate for atmospheric disturbance. Finally, the Airborne Laser Testbed fired its megawatt-class High Energy Laser, heating the boosting ballistic missile to critical structural failure. The entire engagement occurred within two minutes of the target missile launch, while its rocket motors were still thrusting.

This was the first directed energy lethal intercept demonstration against a liquid-fuel boosting ballistic missile target from an airborne platform. The revolutionary use of directed energy is very attractive for missile defense, with the potential to attack multiple targets at the speed of light, at a range of hundreds of kilometers, and at a low cost per intercept attempt compared to current technologies.

Less than one hour later, a second solid fuel short-range missile was launched from a ground location on San Nicolas Island, Calif., and the Airborne Laser Testbed successfully engaged the boosting target with its High Energy Laser, met all its test criteria, and terminated lasing prior to destroying the second target. The Airborne Laser Testbed destroyed a solid fuel missile, identical to the second target, in flight on February 3, 2010.

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