From an MDA press release earlier today:

The Missile Defense Agency demonstrated the potential use of directed energy to defend against ballistic missiles when the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) successfully destroyed a boosting ballistic missile. The experiment, conducted at Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center-Weapons Division Sea Range off the central California coast, serves as a proof-of-concept demonstration for directed energy technology. The ALTB is a pathfinder for the nation’s directed energy program and its potential application for missile defense technology.

At 8:44 p.m. (PST), February 11, 2010, a short-range threat-representative ballistic missile was launched from an at-sea mobile launch platform. Within seconds, the ALTB used onboard sensors to detect the boosting missile

Target launch from Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) for another test (Aegis BMD)

and used a low-energy laser to track the target. The ALTB then fired a second low-energy laser to measure and compensate for atmospheric disturbance. Finally, the ALTB fired its megawatt-class High Energy Laser, heating the boosting ballistic missile to critical structural failure. The entire engagement occurred within two minutes of the target missile launch, while its rocket motors were still thrusting.

This was the first directed energy lethal intercept demonstration against a liquid-fuel boosting ballistic missile target from an airborne platform. The revolutionary use of directed energy is very attractive for missile defense, with the potential to attack multiple targets at the speed of light, at a range of hundreds of kilometers, and at a low cost per intercept attempt compared to current technologies.

Less than one hour later, a second solid fuel short-range missile was launched from a ground location on San Nicolas Island, Calif. and the ALTB successfully engaged the boosting target with its High Energy Laser, met all its test criteria, and terminated lasing prior to destroying the second target. The ALTB destroyed a solid fuel missile, identical to the second target, in flight on February 3, 2010.

Congrats are in order to all involved in a major milestone for the future of missile defense.

5 Comments

  1. Bill K

    SJS, why can’t the bad guys simply add a polished external surface to reflect laser light rather than absorbing it, thereby defeating the device?

    • Without going into the details, a shiny finish won’t necessarily work with the power of the beams being used. Other countermeasures carry a not inconsiderable penalty for the missile. ’bout all I can say here…
      w/r, SJS

  2. Andy (JADAA)

    Can you address what the level of support for continued program funding is on the Hill versus SECDEF’s stated desire to kill the program? I applaud the test directorate’s not so subtle timing on the successful testing.

    VR,
    Andy

  3. Derrick

    That experiment is an astounding technical accomplishment, given all the challenges.

    I’m just curious though…I thought that the Obama Administration was of the position that ballistic missile defense systems would be based on naval warships (surface combatants). I thought someone stated on the Naval Institute blog that one of the primary drivers for that was the need to be able to fire lasers in salvo mode, which would require a heavier power source than a plane could carry.

    Was this experiment done on a pre-Obama Administration approved budget?

    • Derrick:
      That’s why the YAL-1 is labeled an Airborne Laser Testbed. It is by no means a depoyable weapon, but what we learn from development and testing with the testbed (e.g., durability of optics) will figure heavily in the laser weapons systems to come.
      w/r, SJS

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