Airborne Laser Could Save Us

Thursday's Editorial   —   Posted on October 1, 2009

(by W. Thomas Smith Jr., — Perhaps one of the most frightening terrorist-attack scenarios is one wherein a nuclear-tipped missile is launched by terrorists from a seemingly harmless cargo ship somewhere off the coast of the United States.

In such an attack, the missile could be hurtling skyward almost before our current missile-defense system had time to blink. The missile’s warhead could then be remotely detonated somewhere 20 to 60-plus miles above the visual horizon, and — in addition to killing everyone in the blast and radiation radius — trigger an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which would basically fry every single electrical circuit in the blast’s line-of-sight for hundreds of miles in every direction. An EMP would effectively knock out all electrical grids, aircraft, trains, ships, automobiles, computers, medical equipment, ATM machines, cooling and heating systems, TVs, radios, telephones, blackberries, flashlights, electric toothbrushes, and children’s toys in an instant.

In less time than that required to take a breath, a huge section of North America would be catapulted back to the 18th century. Yet because we are so completely dependent upon 21st century technology, the ensuing chaos, crime, starvation, and disease would be something unimaginable.

A single enemy missile could do this to us.

The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, however, have an answer to this threat in the Airborne Laser (ABL) program, essentially a high-energy laser-beam system housed in a Boeing 747-400 aircraft. (Boeing is the primary ABL contractor. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are partners developing the laser-weapon system.)

The ABL system is designed to kill enemy ballistic-missiles — short, medium, and long-range — during the boost-phase portion of the missile’s flight, shortly after the missile has been launched. And being that the system is airborne, ABL is capable of patrolling the U.S. coastline as well as near-and-above “potential enemy ballistic-missile hotspots,” worldwide.

Amazingly, a plan to go forward with ABL was killed by the Obama administration in defense cuts this year (see Obama’s Pentagon Cuts). Yes, I know, developing the ABL is not cheap, and fielding these missile-zapping aircraft would run into the $ tens-of-billions. But writing in 1776, Adam Smith said that the first duty of government is national defense. Clearly, today the nation is involved in an asymmetrical war. The missile-threat dynamic (including the proliferation of missile and nuclear weapons technology) is clearly a part of that asymmetrical war. ABL is needed to counter the threat. Meanwhile, government-spending on modern public entitlement programs — which have nothing to do with government’s “first duty” — has run into the hundreds-of-billions of dollars for years.

At any rate, despite having “lost favor in Washington” — which almost always favors entitlement programs over its “first duty” — the ABL program is “still going strong at Edwards Air Force Base,” according to an article in CNET, with recent testing of “the beam’s power.”

So what does the ABL system look like and how does it work?

Basically, the forward half of the ABL aircraft contains the beam-control/fire-control system, “which [Boeing says] compares in size and sophistication to the Hubble Space Telescope,” Michael Rinn, a Boeing vice president and the program director for the ABL, tells HUMAN EVENTS.

The rear half of the aircraft contains — what is billed as “the world’s largest mobile laser” — a megawatt-class directed-energy weapon (Keep in mind, a megawatt is a million watts of energy) known as a “chemical iodine oxygen laser” or COIL.

In action, the ABL’s attack sequence is fourfold:

• Detect target
• Acquire and track target
• Compensate for atmospheric problems
• Kill missile

According to the Missile Defense Agency, the ABL initiates the attack by first, detecting — with six infrared sensors — “the exhaust plume of a boosting missile.”

Once the missile is detected, a kilowatt-class (1,000 watts of energy) solid-state laser known as “a track illuminator” begins tracking the missile and determining a precise aiming point.

Then “a beacon illuminator” (also a 1,000-watt laser) begins measuring — and correcting for — atmospheric disturbances: The corrections are accomplished with the use of “adaptive optics,” which basically “point and focus” the big million-watt COIL at the intended target.

Finally, using a powerful telescope positioned in the 747’s nose turret, the system focuses the COIL beam onto the enemy missile and destroys it. The rotating turret enables the laser to attack the missile without the aircraft altering its course.

“No other country has this directed-energy capability,” says Rinn, “The potential of megawatt-class, mobile, directed-energy airborne-platforms is enormous. Future potential multi-mission capabilities could change the way we fight wars and defend our friends and allies. Boeing is using internal investments to examine directed energy’s potential to address several other critical missions, including defending against aircraft, cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles.”

So, would an operational ABL system actually be sufficient to knock down a sea-launched missile (a terrorist missile launched from a freighter close to our shores) in the EMP attack-scenario?

“Yes,” says Rinn. “Based on all tests performed by our prototype, an operational ABL would be able to track, acquire, and destroy an incoming ballistic missile. This weapon system is able to intercept ballistic missiles when they are most vulnerable and before they deploy decoys.”

Additionally, ABL is capable of gathering intelligence on launch sites, and — during ballistic-missile combat — relay missile-trajectory information to other elements of America’s missile defense system.

ABL is described by Defense officials and military analysts as “unique” and “revolutionary.” Even its political detractors agree, ABL is unlike any weapon system ever deployed.

“ABL is the pathfinder for directed energy weapons,” says Rinn, who adds the real warfighting game-changer in all of this lies in our “ability to defend ourselves — and our friends and allies — at the speed of light.”

Mr. Smith is a contributor to Human Events. A former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and counterterrorism instructor, he writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. E-mail him at

Copyright ©2009 HUMAN EVENTS, September 15, 2009. All Rights Reserved.  Reprinted here October 1, 2009 with permission from Human Events.  Visit the website at


1. What does Mr. Smith describe as a problem in his commentary?

2. What solution does Mr. Smith offer?

3. What do you think about the ABL program and the U.S. Air Force, Missile Defense Agency and private companies that developed it?

4. How does Mr. Smith refute the criticism that ABL is very expensive? Does he make a good argument? Explain your answer.

5. Do you agree with the President’s decision to cut the ABL program? Explain your answer.

6. Watch the videos in the “Resources” box below.  Do you think the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) scenario is a realistic threat?  Explain your answer.

OPTIONAL: If you believe the ABL system is necessary to ensure the safety of Americans, send an email to your representatives in Congress asking them to reinstate funding for the ABL program.  Or, if you oppose funding the ABL system, send an email expressing your opinion.  Remember to be clear, concise and polite.
–To contact your representative, go to
–To contact your senators, go to

Email your reaction to Mr. Smith’s commentary at  Remember to identify yourself (name, school, state), name the article you are commenting on, and that you read it at Be clear, concise and polite.


Watch a news report on the EMP threat here:

Watch a Discovery Channel demonstration on EMP here: