Missile Defense Agency Seeking A High-Flying Drone For “Airborne Laser 2.0”

June 15, 2017

The Drive:

It was one of the most awesome failures of the 2000s. The giant 747-400-based YAL-1 Airborne Laser sure looked the part of a future weapon system, but in the end it was a miserable and money chugging failure. In all, the program took a decade and half—add another decade more if you count earlier test platforms—and over $5 billion to develop, with very little readily applicable war fighting capability to show for it. By the time the jet was retired in 2011, it could indeed shoot down ballistic missiles during their boost phase, but at far too short of ranges and under too narrow of conditions to make the system combat effective. But now the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) wants a second go at the concept—this time leveraging recent and undeniably major advances in solid-state laser technology and unmanned aircraft systems that could very well see the concept finally come of age.

The YAL-1 used a huge, complex, fuel-hungry chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) to do its missile murdering business. The size of a 747-400 was required to house the huge complex system and all its chemicals, and even then the YAL-1 could only provide about 20 full power shots on a single sortie. Operationally, there were issues as well. A fleet of AL-1s would have been extremely expensive to procure and operate. Especially when providing continuous coverage of an enemy area. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, who was adamant about cancelling the YAL-1 program, said that a fleet 10 to 20 AL-1s, would cost a billion and a half dollars apiece, and each would demand $100 million a year to operate. Gates concluded before the budget axe fell on the program that “there’s nobody in uniform that I know who believes that this is a workable concept”…

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