Airplane-Mounted Laser Weapon Project May Be Resurrected to Defend Against North Korea

A non-working laser cannon to fend off non-working missiles

The Airborne Laser Test Bed

Missile Defense Agency

Like one of those James Bond villains that just won't die, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's missile hunting laser weapon is once again battling its way back from the boneyard thanks to the "emerging" missile threat on the Korean peninsula. The House Armed Services Committee's Strategic Forces panel is asking for roughly $75 million in next year's Pentagon budget to keep the Airborne Laser program intact just in case North Korea turns out to have an intercontinental ballistic missile that works.

The Airborne Laser, or ABL in mil-speak, is a hulking Boeing 747 equipped with a massive laser cannon, dreamed up by the missile defense agency to blast boosting missiles out of the sky. It served as a symbol for the bleeding edge of missile defense and weapons technology for a time, but it also came to represent everything that's wrong with Pentagon weapons development. Over budget and behind schedule, it barely dodged the fiscal axe on a few occasions.

After a brief flirtation with success in 2010, the ABL failed to knock a missile out of the sky during its second test. Then it failed again. Sixteen years and several billion dollars into the program, the MDA had an aircraft that didn't work most of the time (and still cost nearly $100,000 an hour to fly even when it was failing). In February, facing mounting pressure to slash wasteful military spending programs, the MDA announced that the ABL had flown its final test flight. The Congressional plug had finally been pulled.

Or so it seemed. Danger Room reports that in a markup of next year's DoD budget the Strategic Forces subcommittee is once again directing the MDA to evaluate the cost of "returning the ABL to operational status"--odd wording, considering the ABL was never reliably operational. The markup specifically cites the "rapidly developing threats from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."

This, of course, piles further absurdity on top of the idea that the ABL would be a potent defense against missile threats. For its part, the DPRK seems to be getting worse at building rockets--its latest rocket test failed at an even earlier stage than its botched 2009 launch. If the Strategic Forces subcommittee lands the funds it has asked for and resurrects the ABL (again), the U.S. may end up hunting missiles that don't function with an airborne laser cannon that doesn't work.