The Missile Defense Agency’s Airborne Laser Test Bed (ALTB) – formerly known simply as the Airborne Laser – has endured a back-and-forth existence, at different times the darling of the MDA, at other times on the verge of catching the Pentagon or Congressional axe. But after an all-around success in February, the scales have tipped back the other way for the embattled ICBM-blaster as it failed a critical test on September 1.
The ALTB – a powerful chemical laser housed in the nose of a Boeing 747 – was at one point destined for big things in the Pentagon, which planned to purchase several of the defensive systems. The usual shortcomings – budget overruns, missed delivery deadlines, lackluster test feedback – ended up chopping the program back to a single plane.
Then in February the test bed plane knocked a boosting dummy missile out of the sky from 50-miles away, sending the rocket plunging into the sea and the ALTB’s fortunes soaring. The Pentagon threw another $40 million at the program for ongoing testing, and interest in Congress was again piqued.
Last week’s test aimed to knock down another rocket, this time from double the distance. But the 100-mile shot was not so true. The ALTB successfully tracked and zeroed its primary weapon on the test-missile, but for some reason stopped blasting the missile with its high-energy beam before disabling it.
Given the fact that the missile in question was designed to simulate a nuke-tipped ballistic weapon, that’s a failure that the DoD and Congress won’t easily be able to live with. The program isn’t dead, but it’s unclear how much more money leaders will throw at a system that can’t seem to meet its milestones.