The person who took the photograph of the sun setting over the YAL-1 Airborne Laser aircraft must have had a feeling about the project—according to Aviation Week, after almost 16 years of development and more than $5 billion in funding, the program has finally been shut down. That doesn't mean the end of laser weapons—practically every branch of the US Armed Forces has a directed-energy weapons program underway. For the time being, though, the idea of shooting a missile out of the sky via laser has been put on ice, a victim of logistics and budgetary issues.
I will admit to being skeptical of the program from the very beginning. My background is in photonics. I associate lasers, especially high-power lasers, with air-conditioned basement laboratories, 18-inch-thick antivibration tables, chillers, power supplies the size of small refrigerators, etc. The idea that anyone would think they could successfully operate a megawatt-class laser in the shock and vibration environment of an aircraft seemed ludicrous to me. In that aspect, I was wrong—the teams at Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin both did fine jobs of building viable systems that operated under the circumstances. The system even logged successful tests. Although failures occurred, they were caused by software glitches or systems-level targeting issues. The lasers operated as advertised.
In the end, though, although the system ran more-or-less effectively, it couldn’t generate enough energy to permit operation from a sufficient distance to make the program viable, as Defense Secretary Gates testified back in 2009. "I don't know anybody at the Department of Defense, Mr. Tiahrt, who thinks that this program should, or would, ever be operationally deployed," he said. "The reality is that you would need a laser something like 20 to 30 times more powerful than the chemical laser in the plane right now to be able to get any distance from the launch site to fire.” That meant having a large number of ABL aircraft in the air patrolling trouble areas at all times. From a funding perspective, things got tricky. "If you were to operationalize this, you would be looking at 10 to 20 747s, at a billion and a half dollars apiece, and $100 million a year to operate," Gates said. "And there's nobody in uniform that I know who believes that this is a workable concept.”
In the interest of fostering further development, the ABL got downgraded in 2009 to a single-prototype test bed that went on to operate successfully several times. But in the end, assuming reports are correct, budget battles got the best of it and the program has been canceled.
These travails haven't stopped development of other laser weapons such as the US Army’s High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HEL TD) or the U.S. Navy's Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD). Laser weapons offer cost savings compared to conventional weapons in terms of ordinance, but the power demands are higher. And then there's the question of reliability. A laser system might operate once or twice while surviving thermal swings and high shock/vibration environments, but could it be trusted to function over the course of years? I’m a laser geek by training and disposition, but I genuinely wonder whether the technology will ever be practical enough for deployment.
When I was a kid, our local department store put in an automated machine to measure shoe size. It was very exciting to step into the slot and listen to the machine hum as metal bars nudged up against your foot and the display revealed the answer. The novelty was short-lived, though—by the next visit, the machine was broken and silent. For a few years, it sat there taking up space while the clerks went back to measuring by hand. Today, these machines are long gone and the manual metal versions are in every shoe store you go to. The value proposition just wasn't there. I wonder if ultimately that won't be the story of directed-energy weapons. Sure, they can do the job, but can they do it better than conventional weaponry? Will they ever? What do you think?
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