Great Expectations

October 27, 2010

Dear Members and Friends,

Last week, in the skies off Point Mugu, California, a 747 equipped with solid state lasers successfully tracked and targeted at the speed of light a short-range ballistic missile target launched from a sea-based barge; however it failed to switch on and engage its megawatt class lethal chemical laser to destroy the boosting missile.

This marks the second time out of five attempts to engage the chemical laser of the Airborne Laser Test Bed (ALTB) this year that the lethal megawatt chemical laser was turned off automatically for safety reasons or was not switched on when electronically signaled to do so. The first failure, which was caused by a hardware issue, happened in a similar test last month while the most recent test failure was caused by a software issue. Both of these issues are easily solved and do not create an engineering barrier or block to the further successful development of the program.

In February this year the ALTB had the first three successful airborne, speed of light laser engagements of solid and liquid fueled short-range ballistic missiles targets. The program remains a precious technological trail blazer that keeps the United States well ahead of other nations chasing these similar technologies while giving our military a functional test bed to leap forward.

The ALTB remains the world’s only airborne, fully operational, lethal laser capable of shooting down ballistic missiles in the boost phase of flight. The ALTB system has achieved a number of historic engineering breakthroughs.

Unnoticed amongst the general American public, this unique program has been cut back severely by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the administration due to the projected affordability of an operational system. As such the system workforce has been reduced by close to 75 percent over the past year and has been made into a test and risk reduction platform; losing a significant amount of critical skills, expertise and knowledge in the subject matter.

The ALTB funding request of $99 million in 2011 is a very small investment of the overall $8.4 billion Missile Defense Agency budget request to continue working out glitches in the system and testing the megawatt class chemical laser at greater ranges. With greater support this coveted research and development program offers risk and cost reductions in all directed energy laser engagements from solid state, electric (diode pumped alkali lasers, DPALs), and chemical means.

The U.S. Air Combat Command would like to see the conversion of these laser systems to smaller, more mobile operational platforms with multiple uses such as B-1 bombers and C-17 transport planes. Future U.S. Navy Destroyers and ships are also seen as desired mobile platforms for some of these same directed energy laser systems.

In order for the great expectations of laser development to be met more testing and research needs to be done. There have been five high power laser tests conducted this year with a possible sixth before the end of December. There are currently only two high power laser tests with a much reduced budget scheduled in 2011.

Why not dare our brightest to engineer with great expectations to accomplish even greater achievements in making our nation and world safer in the future?

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