Air Force Chief Passes On Airborne Laser

Headlines were ablaze earlier this month reporting the successful destruction of a ballistic missile by the Airborne Laser (ABL). While certainly a milestone in directed energy weapons development, the military appears not the least bit interested. As my colleague Colin Clark reports, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee today, Air Force chief Gen. Norton Schwartz unequivocally quashed any notion the Air Force would buy the flying vat of chemicals.

“Rep. Michael Turner, ranking member of the HASC strategic forces subcommittee, raised the recent success of the Airborne Laser in shooting a target. He asked if that would lead the Air Force to increase its commitment to directed energy weapons. Schwartz poured a fair amount of cold water on the Boeing program, calling the ABL test “a magnificent technical achievement” but “this does not represent something that is operationally viable.” The future “coin of the realm” is solid state lasers, Schwartz said, not the chemical laser that Boeing built.”

— Greg

  • I can’t see this coming as a surprise. I’ve never seen the YAL-1 advertised as a prototype for an actual weapons platform. And I agree – this thing is a flying bomb. Much more interested in seeing solid-state and free-electron lasers, instead of unwieldy chemical beams.

  • Valcan

    The future “coin of the realm” is solid state lasers, Schwartz said, not the chemical laser that Boeing built.”

    Good job boeing………Your using the same laser tech from what 1995?
    Highly toxic: Check
    Slow moving: Check
    Bad manuverability: Check
    Bad platform for technology: triple check

    Laser tech is a win. Just not this laser tech chemical lasers are just not good for this.
    You know i was wondering could they build a system using the same tech there developing for the C130 laser for use as a pod for something like a B52 or other bomber to mount on the wing pylons? Maybe make em more survivable vs SAMS and such.

  • jack

    So the AF just wasted all that money buying 2 new modified 747-400Fs that will soon be in the Boneyard in AZ?

  • bobbymike

    There is more to this system than chemicals. It demonstrated numerous technologies applicable to solid state lasers.

  • stephen russell

    Replace chem side & keep Laser side in nose.
    EZ do?
    or weight for solid state Lasers.
    Keep ABL alone for that venue or use 797 platform.
    Yes 797 Blended Wing body megaplane

  • CJ-

    Doesn’t mean they won’t buy eventually, it just means they won’t buy the chemical laser derivative. They can replace the chemical contraption with a solid state version while keeping all the targeting & systems they developed.

  • Jeff M

    Solid state lasers are just barely 100kw, the chemical lasers have been megawatt class for a long time, they also cool better. Perhaps the general knows something we don’t.

    • Valcan

      “a magnificent technical achievement” but “this does not represent something that is operationally viable.” The future “coin of the realm” is solid state lasers, Schwartz said, not the chemical laser that Boeing built.”

      Yes he does

  • Kevin

    We need this type of capability NOW and solid state lasers just don’t provide this power in a compact airworthy scale. The investment will still pay for itself in the assets the ABL’s will replace for air/space dominance. The investment will also further the USA’s expertise a multitude of related technologies that will come into play when solid state technology is ready for this level of power output.
    With missile proliferation, in general, and specific threats from NK, Iran, and the Chinese ASBM’s, this capability is needed NOW.

    • Gabriel


      How exactly will this beast pay for itself? And exactly what laser equipped cargo planes will it replace?

      Not operationally viable for Iran or China, an easy target for NK SA-5, and it still can’t point after $5 billion and about 15 years.

  • Tony C

    The optics stability to perform this feat is what the demonstration was all about, not the lasing components. The proof that a moving platform can be stable enough to hit a moving target will be used in future laser systems. The use of
    this type system in a satellite based weapon is telling!!!

  • John Moore

    What about placing it on Battle ships?

  • MikeB

    Solid state lasers are still far behind chemical not only in power output, but also in power/weight ratio, which is critical for airborne platforms. There’s a lot of great engineering in the ABL that won’t go to waste, however, so no one (including Boeing) should shed a tear over this.
    Also, if an unforeseen crisis developed (say, suspicious PRK launch preps), I think we can be sure that, just as JSTARS went to Kuwait in Gulf War 1 as a pre-operational system, ABL might also go to Japan (along with several other ABM systems also in various stages of development).

  • Tome

    The ABL is a tool to help advance other future projects, even if it is a chemical laser, it is still way ahead of solid state in the power output. Keep the tool, even if you don’t use it to down ICBMs or other long range missiles, I bet you can still use it to do other forms of damage to Infrastructure, from long ranges that would not get attention like a missile launch would say like on a high pressure oil tank in an Iranian refinary. Or damage all enemy aircraft on the ramp of an airbase, a hole is a hole as they say.

  • Neptune

    The point was made that “the flying vat of chemicals” provided megawatts of power while the solidstate provides kilowatts; not the same league. Also, telling was the “not so successful” third test. The question posed is that indicative of pending design problems in controlling the megawatt power for repetitive use or is this a minor “evolving design” issue. That third test could raise significant technical issues with controls for all lasers in this power range. ABL is a success and will lead us to our future in directed energy weapons, but not now and maybe soon.

  • ohwilleke

    Headline Fail. “Passes On” means both “declines to approve”, and “approves,” depending on context. Since headlines are context free, it is a phrase that should never appear there.

  • Curt

    Boeing didn't build the chemical laser, Northrop Grummand did. Boeing is just the system integrator and did not develop or build any of the lasers.

  • nbjunk

    It will be a long time – if ever – until the SSL’s ever catch up with the Megawatt class ABL. That being said, SSL’s may be “good enough” for smaller theater defense and ground attack roles. In that case as they shrink, they’ll likely proliferate to F-35’s (already discussed), C-130’s (ATL), and perhaps B-52,B-1B, and B-2’s.

    People talk about how “close” the ABL must be to its targets, but ABL has a substantially longer range (400km? IIRC) than the SM-3. In the future it could perhaps reach its goal of 600km (again IIRC). It seems strange to give up such capability.

    All that being said, there may be a role for the ABL in ASAT warfare. Flying at even 30,000 ft, the ABL will have bypassed much of the worst of the atmospheric interference. I’d suspect it can be tasked to take out satellites. Keep in inventory as an ABM system, but really plan on using it for ASAT.