The Missile Defense Agency demonstrated the potential use of directed energy to defend against ballistic missiles when the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) successfully destroyed a boosting ballistic missile. 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 ALTB is a pathfinder for the nation’s directed energy program and its potential application for missile defense technology.
At 8:44 p.m. (PST), February 11, 2010, a short-range threat-representative ballistic missile was launched from an at-sea mobile launch platform. Within seconds, the ALTB used onboard sensors to detect the boosting missile and used a low-energy laser to track the target. The ALTB then fired a second low-energy laser to measure and compensate for atmospheric disturbance. Finally, the ALTB 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 sequence of images shows a threat representative ballistic missile’s breakup resulting from a high energy laser engagement by the Missile Defense Agency’s Airborne Laser Testbed.
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 ALTB 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 ALTB destroyed a solid fuel missile, identical to the second target, in flight on February 3, 2010.
Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB)
The Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) is being developed as an advanced platform for MDA’s directed energy research program. Using two solid state lasers and a megawatt-class Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser housed aboard a modified Boeing 747-400 Freighter, the ALTB uses directed energy to demonstrate the potential of using directed energy as a viable technology against ballistic missiles.
- The Airborne Laser Testbed uses six infrared sensors to detect the exhaust plume of a boosting missile.
- Once a target is detected, a kilowatt-class solid state laser, the Track Illuminator, tracks the missile and determines a precise aim point.
- The Beacon Illuminator, a second kilowatt-class solid state laser, then measures disturbances in the atmosphere, which are corrected by the adaptive optics system to accurately point and focus the high energy laser at its intended target.
- Using a very large telescope located in the nose turret, the beam control/fire control system focuses the megawatt-class COIL beam onto a pressurized area of the boosting missile, holding it there until the concentrated energy compromises the structural integrity of the threat missile causing it to fail.
- The High Energy Laser is now integrated on the aircraft with laser subsystem activation. The program achieved return to flight in April 2009 when it kicked-off its High Power System Integration (HPSI) experiment program. This experiment series verified correct operation of target tracking and atmospheric compensation of the upgraded Beam Control system using the low power energy lasers.
- The Beam Control system has been demonstrated against the first two live target tracking experiments on June 6 and 13, 2009. These experiments mark the first time ALTB demonstrated a complete low-power engagement sequence against a boosting target in flight.
- Using the low power energy lasers, the aircraft successfully acquired, tracked, provided atmospheric compensation and simulated the directed energy kill sequence against an instrumented boosting missile target August 10, 2009. This experiment was the first time laser performance data was collected at the target missile.
- The ALTB’s COIL successfully fired in flight August 18, 2009, validating the High Energy Laser’s (HEL) ability to fire in an airborne environment. The laser fired into an onboard calorimeter – a test instrument used to capture the laser energy and measure performance characteristics of the beam.
- On January 10, 2010 the ALTB HEL successfully acquired, tracked, provided atmospheric compensation and engaged an instrumented rocket. This phase of COIL testing represents a major step towards ALTB’s planned lethal demonstration against a boosting missile later this year.
- There are no plans at this time to build additional ALTB aircraft; MDA will continue research and development of directed energy technology and its potential application for ballistic missile defense.