For years, the Pentagon's research budget has funded not one, but two planes armed with laser turrets.
Although the Airborne Laser (ABL) and the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) have different missions, both projects are led by aviation and defense giant Boeing, and both consist of a chemical laser mounted on a large aircraft.
And yet, the laser planes are on very different flight paths, as ABL weathers its harshest criticism yet, while its younger sibling slides quietly toward further testing.
After a holiday weekend where North Korea's "intercontinental" ballistic missiles failed to reach Japan, never mind Hawaii, Popular Mechanics examines whether the ABL would ever be able to stop such attacks, and alternate futures for American battlefield lasers.
Star Wars Reborn: The Airborne Laser
Although rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated, the embattled, multibillion-dollar Airborne Laser is fighting for its life.
The most powerful battlefield laser in development, and one of the most ambitious weapon systems to date, the Airborne Laser is designed to prove that a megawatt-class chemical laser mounted on a large aircraft (in this case, a 747) can shoot down a long-range ballistic missile before it escapes the atmosphere.
Critics have long derided every aspect of the project, from its cost overruns to the limited scope and Hollywood overtones of its proposed mission. What nation would be reckless enough to launch a missile at the United States, and foolish enough to telegraph the blow, providing the advance warning necessary to deploy a laser-armed 747?
The answer, it seems, is North Korea, which threatened to fire intercontinental ballistic missiles at Hawaii this past holiday weekend. Analysts dismissed the move as a clumsy new phase in the dictatorship's ongoing game of brinksmanship, and the volley of missiles that slipped into the waters between North Korea and Japan on July 4th did little to back up Pyongyang's bluster.
In theory, this weekend's potential attack was precisely what ABL was built for, to act as the first line of defense against an imminent strike from a rogue nation.
The Pentagon deployed missile-defense assets to Hawaii, including a missile-tracking X-band radar array and antimissile batteries. And ground-based interceptors in silos in Alaska stood ready to boost into space for an orbital duel. Still, wouldn't a flying laser turret be a great addition to the team?
Maybe not. Speaking to the House Appropriations Committee in May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed doubts about ABL's utility in any realistic scenario.
"I don't know anybody at the Department of Defense ... who thinks that this program should, or would, ever be operationally deployed. 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," Gates said. "So, right now the ABL would have to orbit inside the borders of Iran in order to be able to try and use its laser to shoot down that missile in the boost phase."
He added that the system will eventually be tested at a range of 85 miles.
Whether ABL has the power and accuracy to down a boosting missile, and even if it had been ready to be deployed this past weekend, its operational range would force it to fly well within North Korean airspace.
"If you have to get that close, you might as well just invade by air with F-15s and F-16s and blow it up on the ground," says Philip Coyle, a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information.
The locations of these rogue missiles aren't exactly a mystery.
"So far, both North Korea and Iran have launched missiles out in the open, after weeks of preparation. Some day they could hide them, put them in underground silos, but we're nowhere near that point yet," Coyle says.
Boeing conducted its most ambitious ABL flight tests yet on June 6th and 13th, where the ABL locked onto missiles launched from the coast of California with a low-power beam.
But such a test may not be enough -- the pressure to perform has never been greater. In addition to questioning the program's feasibility, Gates has canceled plans to build a second ABL.
Even if the system passes its biggest hurdle, a live-fire missile shootdown scheduled for this fall, there's no guarantee that ABL won't be shelved, its research and components cannibalized by a host of more manageable directed-energy projects.
The Laser Machine Gun: The Advanced Tactical Laser
The ABL isn't the only laser plane in the hangar. The Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) is similar to ABL, but its kilowatt-class chemical laser is significantly smaller, designed to hit targets at "tactical ranges."
Boeing won't release specifics, but in a recent test at the White Sands Missile Range, ATL hit a target from 9 miles away, or roughly a tenth of the planned test range for ABL mentioned by Gates.
The ATL's intended targets are less ambitious, too. According to a Boeing statement, "ATL is designed to engage tactical targets, such as vehicles, communications infrastructures and/or facilities."
The ATL's goal is a new kind of ultra-precise strike, one that reduces the collateral damage and friendly fire caused by conventional munitions.
Although the system is currently being tested on C-130 military aircraft, Boeing claims that it "has studied a wide range of platforms, including rotorcraft, as potential hosts for an ATL-type system."
While ABL essentially fills an entire jumbo jet with beam-control optics and chemical fuel, turning the plane into a flying laser cannon, ATL is intended to be simply another weapon system, one potentially suitable for a number of aircraft.
In many ways, ATL represents the larger trend in battlefield lasers, toward compact, less powerful systems that fill the gaps left by missiles, bombs and other conventional weapons.
Instead of requiring a single, obscure scenario to justify its existence, such as a publicly announced rogue missile launch, tactical lasers could be deployed for many potential missions.
"The ATL is basically going to be filling the role of a machine gun," says Coyle. "By definition, it is a close-range system. They're talking about using it the way you would use a helicopter gunship, or some other tactical airborne battlefield system. And so, presumably you're already in the area where you're going to fight anyway, with soldiers on the ground."
ATL, then, could serve as a kind of airborne sniper, picking off relatively unarmored targets, particularly ones that are in close proximity to friendly troops or civilians.
"What remains to be seen is whether it will have greater effectiveness than a machine gun," Coyle says.
Boeing hasn't announced specific upcoming tests for ATL, stating that "the Air Force plans to conduct an extended user evaluation to evaluate operational effectiveness against an extended target set."
It could be years before ATL or any other tactical lasers prove their utility, but there's another reason Boeing's shorter-range laser plane is gliding along, relatively unnoticed, while ABL continues to draw fire from critics and Pentagon brass alike -- ATL is valued at some $200 million, a veritable pet project by defense standards, and a fraction of the estimated $5 billion total budget for ABL.
Even Mike Rinn, Boeing's program manager for ABL, seems to understand that his laser's biggest problem might be the scale and scope of its mission.
"Will there be a future ABL mission? I'm convinced there will be. Will it look like the current one? Maybe not," he says.
Rinn is eager to get past the much-hyped long-range missile shootdown, and move on to studies and possible flight tests pitting ABL against smaller targets, such as aircraft and surface-to-air missiles.
With a half-dozen or more tactical lasers in development, there's little question that ATL, or something like it, will eventually be deployed.
For ABL, survival could mean escaping the high-stakes, highly politicized arena of ballistic missile defense, and proving that there are other jobs out there for the world's most powerful battlefield laser.