Laser-Bearing Jumbo Jet Shoots Down Its First Missile

By Andrew Moseman | February 16, 2010 1:28 pm

Success! The video below shows a test the military ran off the California coast last week, in which a modified Boeing 747 carrying a laser used it to shoot down a test missile; it was the first time a laser weapon has destroyed a missile in its booster stage. DISCOVER covered the first flight tests of this system back in 2008.

The liquid-fueled rocket – thought to be a Scud-B, similar to those being developed by Iran and North Korea – was fired from a ship off the coast California on 11 February [New Scientist]. The plane locked in its tracking lasers, and then unleashed a chemical laser that burned a hole in the side of the missile to blow it up. The Missile Defense Agency ran three total tests, two of which were successful.

Despite these successes, the news isn’t good for the airborne laser program. Most scientists are pretty sceptical of missile defence. Once fast-moving warheads are in space, they are tough to intercept, and decoys can easily fool even the best systems [Nature]. This system’s approach—targeting the warhead while it’s still attached to the rocket—makes targeting easier, but it means that you must be able to strike within minutes of the missile’s launch.

As a result, President Obama has pulled back on airborne lasers. There are no other tests scheduled for this year, and the Missile Defense Agency, which manages the program, requested no money for it next year.

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Video: Missile Defense Agency

  • Cory

    I’m glad we spent all that money. Sigh.

  • Pete

    OK, so airborne lasers are “impractical” for missile defense. What does the Obama administration propose as an alternative means to keep us safe from Iranian and North Korean missiles? Ask them politely to behave? Threaten them with more toothless UN resolutions? Inflict economic hardships through more porous sanctions? Give me a break!

    During the Cold War, we routinely kept squadrons of B-52s at the ready as one leg of the nuclear triad (ICBMs, missile submarines, bombers). They certainly weren’t “practical,” but they played a role in keeping us from being nuked. Sounds like a pretty good investment to me.

  • Liz

    Pete: I am sorry, but your understanding of Cold War nuclear policy appears rather superficial. It almost totally depended upon the concept of MAD — Mutally Assured Destruction. The reason we had all those nukes is so we could hit every single target in the USSR of any economic, political, or military significance if they tried to hit us first. And vice versa. This policy is not effective against our current enemies, who threaten us with assymetrical attacks, are for the most part stateless, and are for the most part state of the art for 1970 in their nuclear weapons programs. No matter what your politics may be, stopping a nuclear missile in any of its 3 phases, booster, mid-flight, or re-entry, is damn near scientifically impossible as has been reported in Discover for many years. It’s like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet. If the laser reported here made a hit, it was only because that target had a homing beacon in it in the first place, I guarantee it.

  • Larry W

    This airborne weapon may not be that effective against missils, but what about ground targets or other aircraft. I say keep the system operational and go over to Israel and perform some tests that the Iranians can see – one in broad daylight and one at night. Target some prominent item on the
    ground like a moving car or truck. Then publish the video on the net. Maybe the Iranian leaders will never travel by care with their cell phones on again.

  • Larry W

    This airborne weapon may not be that effective against missils, but what about ground targets or other aircraft. I say keep the system operational and go over to Israel and perform some tests that the Iranians can see – one in broad daylight and one at night. Target some prominent item on the
    ground like a moving car or truck. Then publish the video on the net. Maybe the Iranian leaders will never travel by care with their cell phones on again. Lets not waste the money already spent.

  • Liz

    We already have smart bombs that can hit just about a dime. Lots of them. Read about Tomahawks, J-DAMS, and the new Small Diameter Bomb. And these are delivered by sure-enough fast fighter jets and bombers, not slow dinosaurs like 747’s.

  • James Thompson

    It was found in California, when children were pushed their i.Q.’s were artificially ten points higher. Thus for Ca;fornia’s Oriental Children, their average I.Q. was 110, as was Al Gore’s and George Bushes I.Q.’s. A US President shoud have an I.Q. of 130, Un-Pushed, and 140, if Pushed. President Obama has a pushed I.Q. of 126, ten points higher than his real I.Q. of 116. This explains the problems of the Bush and Obama Presidency’s. Too Low an I.Q. for the Job!!!

  • T. Emerson Coleman

    yay!!….wha’s that?…after how many years? …and how much money? never mind.

  • Katharine

    James Thompson, you seem to have a very poor understanding of IQ.

  • Dave

    We can’t hit a missle with a missle? What about luanching multiple small missles at one target to take it down? If you fire ten, twenty, however many missles it takes to intercept the nuke, wouldn’t the cost of those missles be worth the damage? I just have a hard time believing that it couldn’t be done. Liz makes a good point.

    Maybe it’s just a matter of early detection and tracking systems I guess.

  • Nick O.

    Dave, I think Liz’s statement was not in favor of continuing to fund the missile defense program (if you read her earlier comment, it’s clear she thinks it’s “damn near scientifically impossible”) or saying that she thinks it could be done. Rather, I think she was responding to Larry W.’s statement about us using the technology to “go over to Israel and perform some tests that the Iranians can see” by targeting “some prominent item on the ground like a moving car or truck” and making the point that we already have the technology to easily do that. We DO do it. All the time. There’s videos of it galore. The Iranians don’t think that we can’t do it. Unfortunately, that technology is not even on the same level as the technological ability necessary to shoot down a missile more than a few minutes after it was fired. I agree – it SOUNDS like it should be possible, but every scientific article that comes out about this makes the point that it’s really not as easy as it sounds and we’re nowhere close to being able to do it to a useful level.

  • Jon D.

    If as Liz states “state of the art for 1970 in their nuclear weapons programs” we are in big trouble because state of the art in 1970 is quite advanced with MIRVs (multiple independent reentry vehicles) and Hydrogen warheads. I don’t think that they are anywhere near that advanced!

    I also don’t agree with Liz that missile defense is “is damn near scientifically impossible”. Laser and anti-missile technologies have proven to be successfully demonstrated in multiple tests (and without any “homing beacons”). No system is going to be perfect but that does not mean that we should not continue to develop the technology.

    The Airborne Laser Project has already proved to be very successful in spinning off the target acquisition technologies and applications of lower powered laser systems in ground vehicles and other aircraft. It is a R&D platform that deserves further development.

  • Irving

    Science used to think you couldn’t break the sound barrier either. With the ASM-135, the US has been able to “hit a bullet with a bullet” since 1985.

  • Liz

    If there is a single open-source authority that laser and anti-missile technologies have proven successful in tests on a moving, launched missile target without a homing beacon, please give me a reference for it. I have been in the weapons systems business for over 20 years and I have never seen nor heard of a “successful” demonstration of missile defense, laser or otherwise, against a moving missile, boost stage, mid-flight, or re-entry, without a homing beacon in the target. If you can give me a reference and I am wrong about this I will be happy to admit it. I don’t have an agenda here I am just trying to provide accurate information. I wanted to point out that some of these people posting are not being realistic about our current state of missile defense. And I never gave any opinion one way or the other about the usefulness of developing technology — if it matters, and I don’t see why it does, I love R&D and I think it’s a good way to spend government money. Back to this particular article, it is talking about a very heavy laser system that has to go on a 747 because it is so heavy and a 747 can’t even go the speed of sound. And the more effective the laser, the heavier it has to be, and the more the 747 is slowed down. When you only have 6 – 12 minutes to hit a moving missile during boost stage, you have a whole hemisphere to try to find it during mid-flight, and you don’t know where it is coming down on re-entry, those are several pretty big challenges to meet in order to have an effective laser-based missile defense system mounted on a 747. Without using lasers, we have air-to-surface smart bombs that can hit a dime and can be delivered by platforms that can go Mach 2.2 or even faster. On another issue mentioned above, our enemies know good and well what we can hit. Why do you think they use the kinds of assymetrical tactics that they use? And stay in hiding? Look at Baghdad, still under piles of rubble from Shock and Awe in 2003. To say nothing of our Predator strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, recently. Finally, the ASM-135 is an anti-satellite technology, not missile defense. Not the same thing, sorry.

  • David

    My God ….. Alexander Graham Bell developed the first patent for the telephone in 1876. It was NOT practical to string copper wires across every home in every city in every country around the world. Back then they did not even face the threat of one small foreign missile with one little NUKE wiping out tens of millions of fellow citizens in a glowing flash! But somehow thank God our predecessors made the investment of developing the infrastructure to wire the nation and the world for the invention of the …..telephone! Now a little over one hundred years later we all enjoy the BLACK BERRY and the IPHONE which would have never happened if the new phone technology had to wait on feasibility of wiring the entire world.

    Today we have a new game changing technology in flying lasers that have proven capable to knock down nuclear tipped missiles shortly after launch and allow the resulting debris fall back down on the region that launched them at our cities. A defense weapon where even at its onset can kill nuclear tipped missiles! Nobody knows how far this new revolutionary technology may take humanity away from keeping arsenals of poison nuclear weapons and missiles that can rain terror from above! Like the Iphone today …….Alexander Graham Bell had no idea at the extent the first phone technology could evolve and change the world for all. America’s past and future safety had proven to depend on its technology advantage. Why after this revolutionary of a game changing technology is proven capable of stopping nuclear missile attack would a democratic leader responsible for the future safety of the nation ……..sell us out on the cheap, when it works, and it CAN save millions of lives and end the threat of nuclear missile attacks?

  • Beth

    One lil NUKE could ruin the nations whole day!

    Not to mention how much do we spend to fund research on: How do you bury millions of DEAD Americans when rogue terrorist nations continue to push the envelope of missile and nuclear bomb capabilities like North Korea, Syria, and Iran? What if just four major cities were hit off the west coast and the fallout blew across the rest of the nation?…… San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle? What if all of New England was melted in a flash and our national financial system and power grid was evaporated ….. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington? What if four corners were targeted and the logistics of response teams were hampered …… New York, Miami, San Diego, and Seattle?

    Various missile defense technologies have matured and have been proven to work! Why give up simply because we have an administration change that wants to spend stimulus to help foreign workers build inner city roads for gang bangers and inner city drug dealers to peddle drugs from south of the border? Investment in technology in the defense sector has kept America technological advanced ahead of adversaries and has prevented many attacks on American interests, wars, and American lives! The airborne laser technology is emergent and has been proven to work! What a crying shame to unfund the technology supremacy that has kept Americans free when millions of lives and the safety of the country are increasingly at stake!
    Obama and Gates if you are dedicated to the safety of the American people, fund some real American jobs, keep America’s safety prime both present and future, maintain the investment in advanced technology to keep our troops and especially our cities SAFE!

  • ted

    I just want to a-men Beth’s comment. And say that every-time we change presidents they
    seem to want to change our defence tactics. I say leave it the hell alone. We payed for it already and if it works why stop it or change it. If its wasteful or useless get rid of it.
    A short term president should not have this veto power alone. We the people need to take
    action to change the rules. They took away his power to commit us to a war with out a
    vote. Unless directly attacked. Lets take away this power. Let the Majority decide what
    should stay and what should not. That would be the democratic way.

  • Brian Too

    I have to say that I don’t get this technology, at least not as currently set up.

    A 747 is a big, fat, juicy target. You cannot put it on stationkeeping over the US, hoping to hit a missile launched a continent away. Lasers are line of sight technology, and atmospheric factors mean they won’t be very effective under many common conditions.

    So where do you deploy the 747? Over, or near the enemy territory. That makes the 747 terribly vulnerable to SAM’s, not to mention enemy fighter jets. All of which are far cheaper and more effective than a 747 with a heavy laser installed. Which is going down first? I’d bet against the 747, even protected by an entire squadron of friendly fighters.


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