Sunday, February 14, 2010

Giant Step Forward in Missile Defense: Successful Test of Airborne Laser

On February 11, the Missile Defense Agency announced the successful test of its airborne laser (ABL) against two missiles launched an hour apart. But its matter-of-fact press release does not even allude to the earthshaking implications of deploying such a weapon, which should worry such perennial troublemakers as North Korea, Iran, and Russia.

At present, the U.S. has deployed only a rudimentary missile defenses against ballistic missiles, which can destroy them in the midcourse and descent stages. Even those defenses have massive holes in them, some of which would have been plugged by the "third site" in Poland and the Czech Republic. Regrettably, President Obama unceremoniously canceled the third site in return for a bowl of cabbage soup from Russia. (See my previous rant: Is Putin Even Playing in Our League?)

The ideal missile defense system would hold ballistic missiles at risk during their entire flight, from liftoff (boost phase) to the ascent and midcourse phase, when they maneuver and the warheads separate for reentry, to the terminal or descent phase, when the warheads fall toward their targets. Destroying a ballistic missile during boost phase is the most difficult type of intercept because of the short response time needed and because this would often require intercepting the missile over enemy territory. However, a missile is most visible and most vulnerable during boost phase. In particular, the hot plume of gases expelled from the rocket engine makes the missile easy to detect during the boost phase. Another advantage is that the warheads are still attached to the missile during boost phase, so destroying the missile in boost phase will also prevent the warheads from reaching their targets.

With detection during boost phase well within the capabilities of existing sensors, the ABL solves the remaining challenges with its range of hundreds of kilometers and its ability to strike at the speed of light. Presumably, the range of future versions will be limited only by the curvature of the earth's surface. Unlike the U.S. military's current missile interceptors, which can "hit a bullet with a bullet," the ABL only has to achieve the equivalent of hitting a speeding car with the beam from a flashlight--a much simpler and much quicker operation.

Effective Deterrence

The ABL could also serve as a powerful deterrent because it can destroy the missile over the territory of aggressor state. The U.S. could deploy the ABL over international waters or in the airspace of a country next to the rogue state (e.g., North Korea and Iran). Within a minute or two of the missile launch, the ABL could destroy the missile, which would probably still be over the territory of the rogue state, leaving that country to deal with the effects of its own missile's warhead(s)--whether they are nuclear, chemical, biological, or simply conventional weapons.

Thus, the ABL would drastically alter the potential aggressor's risk-benefit calculations by sharply reducing the chances of a successful attack and by radically increasing its chances of being hit or at least harmed by its own weapon. The ABL could conceivably tip the balance enough that many rogue states (or aspiring rogue states) would choose to abandon their current missile technology or not invest in it in the first place, because the ABL had rendered the ballistic missile an unreliable delivery system.

Budget Games

The timing of the ABL test was convenient and probably not coincidental. The ABL program is probably fighting for survival against an administration that treats missile defense like just another bargaining chip. Last year, in addition to President Obama reneging on promises to Poland and the Czech Republic to build the third site,  Defense Secretary Robert Gates cut funding for a second ABL from the FY 2010 defense budget. Congress will soon begin debating the FY 2011 defense budget. Hopefully, the successful test will insulate the ABL from further penny-wise-dollar-foolish cost cutting in missile defense.

Image from U.S. Missile Defense Agency

Additional Reading
U.S. Missile Defense Agency, "Airborne Laser Testbed Successful in Lethal Intercept Experiment"
Chris Gaylord, "Airborne laser shoots down missile in mid-flight," Christian Science Monitor
Previous blog entry: Is Putin Even Playing in Our League?

1 comment:

  1. The speed of light is much faster than any missile. If the system can be developed into something practical, it could become priceless.



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