Is ABL going gently into that good night?

Missile defense programs generally don’t die; they fade away. They’re born of great hope and expectations, which they gradually piss away with poor performance and unbelievable cost growth until they can be quietly put out to pasture.

Airborne Laser (ABL) seemed to be one of those unstoppable programs. Laser too heavy for the aircraft? Problems keeping the laser’s beam focused? No realistic concept of operations devised? Not a problem for this program, whose continued existence admittedly baffled me. Even though it had been cited by multiple (one, two, three) by Government Accountability Office reports as having serious engineering challenges to fix before it could be feasible, and rumors have swirled within the Beltway that it was approaching the precipice, somehow it managed to sail serenely on. I figured that it had a powerful patron in the uppermost echelons of the U.S. government plumping for its survival.

Not so much, it would seem.

According to a Reuters article (“U.S. Said Mulling Ending Airborne Laser Project,” 30 November 2005), a White House budget analysis of DoD’s 2007 budget suggested dropping the program, citing budget constraints.

Maybe last year’s much-vaunted “first light/first flight,” where program officials powered the laser for a fraction of a second and had the modified Boeing 747 fly, wasn’t quite the pinnacle of achievement that Missile Defense Agency officials crowed it was.

Granted, ABL is now expected to cost over $5 billion, so if you had to make a cut that would instantly free up lots of cash and yet not affect your actual national defenses one iota, it would be a logical choice. Assuming that you haven’t made a mortal enemy of whoever has been its protector.


Another program floated by the same White House document to be cut is the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS). Now, the disappearance of this network of satellites, which has also seen its cost shoot upwards and its launch schedule shift far to the right, might actually affect the way missile defense would function.

MDA claims says that the STSS satellites would be …

… a constellation of interoperable Research and Development (R&D) satellites and supporting ground infrastructure for the detection, tracking and discrimination of ballistic missiles. Data from STSS will be used to allow BMDS interceptors to engage incoming missiles earlier in flight.

That’s an incredibly important part of the missile defense infrastructure, as the decades-old Defense Support Program satellites, originally designed to see a swarm of Soviet ICBMs coming over the horizon, are nowhere near sensitive enough to provide an adequate early warning of missile launches.

(BTW: If you’re not recognizing the STSS name, never fear. It used to be called SBIRS-Low, but was renamed to take the SBIRS taint off of it.)

So how serious is this administration at getting missile defense to work if it’s willing to take out the needed eyes in the sky for it to function at all? And how credible are assertions that missile defense has, at this very moment, achieved any sort of operational status if this major hole in its infrastructure exists today, tomorrow, and forever more?


  1. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    As I once told a reporter years ago, missile defense is shield of dreams for its most ardent advocates and, accordingly, an “if we build it, it will work” mentality prevails.

    Because it is truly a faith-based initiative, missile defense proponents appear little troubled by such inconveniences as a lack of realistic field testing or the non-existence of such presumably essential infrastructure components as the STSS. For them, its mere existence-on the ground in Alaska and in the federal budget-is sufficient for their needs which, except for the most delusional, have little to do with actually defending anything or anyone against rogue ICBMs.

    Somewhere, Rene Descartes must be smiling.

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