Military Tests New Missile Defense System: Lasers Mounted on Jumbo Jets

By Eliza Strickland | September 10, 2008 9:31 am

airborne laserMilitary contractors have successfully fired a high-energy laser attached to a modified commercial aircraft, in a ground test that is a step towards testing the airborne laser system in flight. Boeing and Northrop Grumman are working on the system, which is intended to shoot down ballistic missiles.

The laser is in the back half of a Boeing 747-400F jumbo jet. Subsequent tests will increase duration and power before the beam is sent through a fire control system to a turret mounted in the nose of the aircraft [AP]. A long series of ground tests and flight tests will build up to an attempt to intercept and destroy a ballistic missile in flight; that test is scheduled for August 2009. The Defense Department has already spent $4 billion on the airborne laser system, and the final price tag is expected to reach $5 billion.

The test, conducted at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., lasted only a “fraction of a second” says a spokesman for Northrop Grumman, the makers of the Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL). But this was long enough to prove “the laser is ready to demonstrate power output sufficient to destroy a ballistic missile in flight,” he adds [Aviation Week]. The laser would work by heating the missile’s skin, weakening it and causing it to break apart from high-speed flight stress.

The system is designed to find, follow and intercept enemy missiles after they’ve been launched, according to the Air Force. In theory, the Airborne Laser would fly below the clouds, where it could track a missile in its “boost flight phase,” according to the Air Force. Then, using a high-power laser, it would knock out the weapon near its launch area…. The laser produces enough energy in a five-second burst to power a typical household for more than an hour [Air Force Times].

Image: Boeing/Bob Ferguson

  • Damian

    I worked on part of this project for a little while in graduate school. It’s an interesting plan, but it’s hard to see how practical it would be if you only have one airplane; the enemy could wait for the plane to land for refueling or maintenance, and then launch their missiles. It would be similarly ineffective against enemies with a number of silos separated by a few kilometers, or enemies who know how to launch decoy rockets (the laser has to stay focused on the hull of a missile for long enough to heat it and cause it to lose structural stability; this takes a little while and means the plane can’t shoot down multiple targets simultaneously). Sometimes it seems like a project gets funded just because it sounds impossibly cool.

    By the way, nice change on the blue-font color. I can see it clearly now.

  • Tsai

    Gee Damian,

    Suppose the Air Force built an entire FLEET of laser equipped planes? Like they build fleets
    of Jet Fighters, Tankers, Bombers, Cargo planes, Drones…Would THAT be practical?


  • alex Notarangelo

    What a waste of 5 billion dollars.

    How about you use the 5 billion to increase healthcare/schools/community based jobs in countries that hate us.
    Perhaps instead of trying to defend our “homeland” we start finding out and fixing why “evil do-er’s” want us dead in the first place. Its most definetly not for our “freedom”…

  • Damian


    First off, your tone is irritating.

    Second off, look at what I said: you could defeat these vehicles with decoys, so even a fleet of them would be of questionable value. Questionable value and ENORMOUS expense. Any nation-state with the sophistication to build ICBM silos will probably have access to anti-air missiles. They’re just going to allow lumbering 747s to circle above their silos, while simultaneously planning nuclear war with the United States? If they’re willing to launch ICBMs at us, surely they’ll be willing to shoot down the slow, relatively untested anti-missile airplane floating overhead. These planes have to be <10 km from the launch to target the missile successfully, so they'll be in easy range of even unsophisticated anti-air systems.

    So you can't target a large nuclear power like the Russians or the Chinese, because they have too many silos (if for no other reason). You'd have to build HUNDREDS of billion-dollar 747s to even try. And you can't target small nuclear powers like Korea and Pakistan, because they could foil your attempt with decoys and would shoot you down ANYWAY, if it really came to a shooting war, which is what you're assuming if we're trying to block an ICBM attack. And it wouldn't have any effect on terrorists or rogue states who get their hands on a nuclear weapon, because they wouldn't deliver it with an ICBM. They would smuggle it into our too-porous ports, or across one of our permeable borders.

    Laser equipped 747s would not make a "practical" fleet in the same sense as cargo planes or drones, because increasing your supply of them DOES NOT INCREASE THE FLEET'S EFFECTIVENESS. More cargo planes means more cargo moved. More drones (which are relatively cheap, by the way) means more area surveyed. More billion-dollar laser-tipped 747s means more billion-dollar laser-tipped 747s shot down.

    Sure, we could dream up a scenario where one of these weapons could be used, but ask yourself if this is a PROBABLE scenario. Is it a one-in-a-million long-shot? Given that this system isn't even proven for shooting down missiles, does it really make sense to spend billions of dollars on a system that MIGHT successfully shoot a missile down in the extraordinary event of it being in the right place, at the right time, against a currently completely hypothetical foe, right before it gets hit and destroyed by a $10,000 missile or a $100 antiaircraft shell? Or, if we've taken out all their air defense, why didn't we take out the silo?

    How much should we be willing to spend on these daydreams? If you can think of a probable and practical scenario to use a billion-dollar airplane to defend America from a real threat, I'm all ears. If you can find a way to rattle these enormous planes off the assembly line at $1 million or less, I'm all ears.

    Otherwise, no, "THIS isn't practical."

  • Daniel

    this isn’t a new project – it was first tested in 1977.

  • Eliza Strickland

    I didn’t have room to include this in the article, but AP reports that the feds recently cut the budget for the airborne laser program.

    “Earlier this year, the House Armed Services Committee agreed to cut $42.6 million from the Missile Defense Agency’s $421 million program in its version of the defense authorization bill due to continuing operational and affordability concerns. That cut is much larger than the proposed $15.7 million trim House appropriators have recently suggested. Neither committee has included funding for a second aircraft.”

    So we may end up with just one, $5 billion dollar plane.

  • Damian

    “So we may end up with just one, $5 billion dollar plane.”

    I would prefer we call it “one, $5 billion dollar, totally sweet James Bond movie prop of awesomeness”. Just because something is totally useless doesn’t mean it has to be considered a _total_ failure. On the other hand, yes, by all means, stop building them.


    Who says the technology has to be limited to aircraft?
    Why can’t these be mounted on Satellites – low altitude.
    We don’t need more than 1 plane, because that isn’t how it will be used.

    http://afewtips. com

    Also a Plone site.

  • Damian


    The laser this plane uses is called a COIL (Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser). A violent chemical reaction between hydrogen peroxide and a catalyst produces excited atomic oxygen ions, which resonate with an injection of iodine and excite it. The iodine emits infrared radiation, which can be lased. The apparatus is HUGE and consumes copious amounts of power and feed chemicals. It’s the only sort of laser, as far as I know, that’s even remotely suited for this sort of task, since the beam has to be continuous to damage a missile, and even then it has to be very close (<10 km).

    A satellite cannot maintain orbit at that altitude, since it's within the atmosphere, so it would be passing too far overhead to catch the missile in its boost phase. Once the missile is in space on its sub-orbital trajectory, it will be traveling too fast to sustain a laser hit over any meaningful amount of time (it's speed relative to an antimissile satellite would be 7,000 mph or much more; out of range in seconds), and it will generally be far below the altitude of most low-earth orbit satellites anyway.

    Only a COIL has the muscle to kill a large missile (as far as I know). A COIL laser could only be mounted on a large jet (or on the ground), and a laser-based missile interceptor system would only work if you could catch the missile as it's taking off, before it's going very fast. Put all of that together, and only a COIL on a big jet near the launch site has any chance of killing a missile. But, as I argued above, even this is HIGHLY unlikely to ever work in practice.

    I hope that clarifies.


  • Damian

    Full disclosure:

    Wikipedia says the operational range of the ABL’s laser is 600 km. That’s a lot farther than anyone thought it could shoot when I was in grad school. I don’t know if they found a way to increase the range, or if Wikipedia contains an overestimate. It has certainly never been demonstrated to work from such a long range; atmospheric distortion would render a laser almost useless from that range. Wikipedia also says ABL was designed to shoot down tactical ballistic missiles, not intercontinental. That was CERTAINLY not what was said a few years ago, since tactical missiles are much harder to kill (they generally have thicker hulls). Maybe they’re “evolving the mission” to maintain funding. Eliza says the program is being cut back because of “continuing operational and affordability concerns.” Which seems like shorthand for “it is too expensive and won’t work”.

    But I wanted to make sure I wasn’t misrepresenting anything.

  • Luke Skywalker

    The same argument “It will never work” was widely held about: Iron clad ships never working, aircraft carriers will never work, and even the belief that airplanes will never work as instruments of war were held and even adopted by our government. The well established history of weapon evolution in America proves one thing: When there is a will there is a way. It may not come without challenge or even without great difficulty. Yankee ingenuity even produced the unthinkable against all odds. The Manhattan Project which proved E=MC2 with great cost and many trials and false starts. In the end we do not salute a flag with a rising sun that symbolized a fearless nations that would not stop at anything till it annihilated the USA. Fighting wars with speed pf light weapons just may be the only salvation We the American people have to remain the home of the free and of the brave. God Bless the USA!

  • Damian

    Wow, my mouth is filling with an apple-pie taste. Covered with American cheese.

    Ok, unnerving patriotic fervor aside, Young Skywalker, can you explain how to overcome the technical, financial, and operational hurdles I described above?

    If some yahoo general decided America should try to heroically defend her borders with a gun that uses rainbows to shoot jellyfish, should we throw billions of dollars into it because “where there is a will, there is a way”? Americans tried to deploy a submarine in the Revolutionary War. Didn’t work. We tried to build a single-stage-to-orbit space plane. Didn’t work. We kicked around the ideas of invisibility, jet packs, and psychic warfare. No, no, and no.

    For every moon landing, telegraph, and Hoover Dam, there’s a litany of failures (and I much prefer to focus on the American achievements that advanced the human race and never hurt anyone… not the “unthinkable” one that killed hundreds of thousands of people in a country that had already agreed to surrender just so we could send a firm message to Russia… but whatever makes you happy, Luke).

    Engineering, more than politics, is the art of the possible. And, despite your high-flying rhetoric, I don’t see any evidence AT ALL that a laser-equipped 747 will do anything to promote the “salvation” of “We the American people” or increase our liberty or security a home. It’s time to move on to the next big idea.

  • Luke Skywalker

    The advent of the Flint Lock Musket ….the first gun was an reckless long shot without much immediate practical use. In an age of bronze and iron swords, knives. spears and bows and arrows or cross bows the musket did not have much of a chance at all against waring foes.

    How soon mankind forgets …… the musket required re-loading by pouring and packing gun powder down the breech of the ancient flintlock. Followed by dropping a formed iron ball down the barrel. The the hope the piece of rock called a flint ignited the packed gun powder only to hopefully send the iron ball to it’s desired target with hoards of attacking warriors encroaching swinging fierce blade type weapons or delivering waves of pointed arrows more precisely to their target. reloading a flintlock was not near as effective as reloading a bow and arrow or a cross-bow. In the time of early flintlock development a spear was a multiple firing and automatically reloading weapon. Even the primitive spear made the flintlock an unpractical pipe dream.

    Thanks to the slow and costly evolution of the gun from flintlock to revolver to carbines to the fully automatic weapons we very much take for granted today ……. nothing would have ever started if the process did not start with the impractical flintlock. Even the advent of the early fords without roads to drive them on or refineries to make fuel was impractical. Maybe we have to think forwards instead of backward?

    A laser weapon fires at a acceleration rate that shoots from Los Angeles to New York City …..faster than the actual blink of an eye. This is a quantum jump in the technological advancement in weaponry. The development of this technology provides American soldiers the promise of many significant advantages for future warfare.

    For me I like Apple pie. Often, I place old fashioned ice cream on top and nuke it a few seconds in a microwave. Technology that is now very affordable and does much to improve the quality of life. The cost of technology over time does have tremendous payback. Unless we desire to crawl back in to a dark cave and let immediate cost prohibit the advance of all technology – we better invest in laser self defense as if our lives depend on it ……. because it very well does.

  • Amerikagulag

    “…Unless we desire to crawl back in to a dark cave and let immediate cost prohibit the advance of all technology – we better invest in laser self defense as if our lives depend on it. because it very well does….”

    And Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction, too!
    P.T. Barnum was right.

    The alternative to more wars of aggression against countries who pose no threat is crawling back into a cave. Korea can’t reach us, Iran’s not working on any and Russia has 12000 pointed at us as we speak. China has about 200. No one has yet shot a missile at us, unless you count the one on that hit the Pentagon on 911. We just don’t know who fired it.

    A billion dollars on this. Think of the “good” it could have done. But I guess that’s not profitable to the death merchants.

    The good news is though, in view of its ineffectiveness as an airborne defense system, absent of a massive fleet of these things, we can consider the next option; ground-based, mobile. Coupled with the sonic and microwave “crowd control devices” the military has already perfected, this would make a stunning addition to complete the 3 stage crowd dispersion tactic. Boom ’em, singe ’em, and if they still dont’ disperse, cook ’em.

  • Luke Skywalker

    If we only listened to the narrow sighted that only expended the effort for proven technology we would never be surfing the net expressing our ideas in cyber media ….. we would still be using chisel on stone!

    The FIRST computer was an unpractical and very un-wise MILITARY experiment (Project PX” by the United States Defense Department. The finished machine was over 680 square feet in size and was unveiled on Valentines day in 1946. The ENIAC, short for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer was designed and built to calculate artillery firing tables for the Army and Navy. Stuffing a multi-story downtown building and costing. In 1940’s dollars the cost to the government was over $500,000 back during WWII. The power was unlike anyting seen at the time and is much like a hand held calculator today!

    Interesting facts about the goverments big gamble that led to the science behind the powerful computers we take for granted today …..

    The DODs ENIAC computer contained 17,468 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and around 5 million hand-soldered joints. It weighed 30 short tons (27 t), was roughly 8.5 feet by 3 feet by 80 feet (2.6 m by 0.9 m by 26 m), took up 680 square feet (63 m²), and consumed 150 kW of power.

    I, for one, am very glad the wisdom of the DOD to spend what looked to be unwise at the time to bring a whole new technology to mankind. Have the DOD listened to the nay sayers we would be using candles for light and stone tablets to communicate. As stated before, even apple pie is best when topped with ice cream, and nuked a few seconds in my affordable microwave. I appreciate the foresight of Mr. ford and now that we have roads and refineries we can go many more places than when many said: What good is the autobobile when I have a stable full of jack asses and they do not need gasoline. Laser weapons that shoot at the speed of light will bring forth new totally new technology just as did the musket, the automobile, the microwave …. even if you despise apple pie, and the computer where the ENIAC costing much more than nay sayers at the time felt resonable, filled a large building, and now hand held devices have more power ….. but unless mankind invests more than many deem wise in the first step of any new technology we are reduced to just another animal except for the primitive tools. So surf on your stone laptop tablet and be thankful for the investment of those with the vision to bring fort the future!

  • Luke Skywalker

    Think about it …… the reality today is the advent of laser weapons brings mankind …… specifically (thank God) the USA the ability of have weapons that move at the SPEED OF LIGHT! To illustrate what that means is: A laser weapons brings the advent a weapon that travels

    from Los Angeles …… to New York …… faster than a human can blink an eye!

    This is revoluntionary and game changing for even what we can see at the advent of the new technology as it is brought forward!

  • H Paulson

    With the mega wattage that thing has … we could burn up all Chineese owned FANNIE MAE and FREDDY MAC BACKED MORTGAGE SECURITIES faster than the Treasury can dump bad debt! That certainly will keep America safe. We can even adopt the mind set that investing in new technology has to be even be practical before it is ever invented. Like having roads and oil refineries before the development of the car. What promise of technology do we get for a couple of trillion dollars thrown to the stacked up debt of a collasping Wall Street?

  • S Hoffman

    Maybe this incredibly sweet laser tipped money pit was developed not to save American citizens, but prove its effectiveness as an Air1 preventative strike measure. Thus American military operations could continue with an in sky military intelligence in a nuclear war scenario. The purpose of these first planes may be to see if the targeting is possible, the strength of the laser is probably perceived weak right now and could be improved if they are throwing this much money at the project. That’s the only practical purpose I can think of, and if you say its open to attack from jets well such an important craft would probably have an escort. Carrier of the sky?

  • Admiral Halsey

    I would love to have a couple of airborne lasers flying above each of my fleets to protect it from every kind of threat including attack aircraft, observation satellites, standard offensive missiles, and looking down for cruise missile defense. Wow fighting with weapons that move at the s p e e d of light! Where do I sign to get some of these? What will the power, range, and accuracy be in a few years? This is a whole new game changer!


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