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July 21, 2005—Recent contractor assessments of the Airborne Laser (ABL) program have probably been overly optimistic, USAF Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told the Defense Writers Group July 21. One of ABL’s new tenets, said Obering, is to “under promise and over budget.”

Obering, who has been with MDA since December 2001, said he did not want to paint a “rosy picture” about ABL’s progress only to come back next year and say, “we didn’t accomplish what we thought we were going to get accomplished.”

This is not because the ABL development has been a failure so far, he emphasized. Great progress has been made and Obering said he is “extremely proud” of the work that the Boeing-led contractor team has been done so far.

The general was striving for realistic understanding of how difficult this development is.

“I did not mean to be downbeat on ABL,” he said, noting that all the key technical components have been tested. But the system still has to be put together in a “more operationally realistic context,” which, he maintained, is never as easy as it sounds.

“Too often you hear people say, ‘we’ve done this [and] we’ve done that—all we’ve got to do is integrate it.’ ”

With the laser system demonstrated in atmospheric conditions, MDA must now tear it down, load it aboard a converted Boeing 747 freighter, reassemble it, integrate the components, and fly it “in the next couple of years,” he said. “I think we have a long way to go.”

However, he said that MDA still eyes 2008 as a “good target” date to demonstrate the ability to actually shoot down a ballistic missile during its boost phase.

ABL achieved its last major milestone Nov. 5, 2004. (See “Aerospace World: ABL Achieves ‘First Light.’”) That represented the first time that ABL’s six Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) modules were successfully linked and fired together. This was an event that “many critics said could never be done,” Obering said.
Furthermore, he said MDA has flown the testbed aircraft more than 20 times and continues to learn from these missions.
ABL’s boost-phase defense is highly sought because it would be a “fly in” capability able to deploy worldwide. The COIL laser would target ballistic missiles while they were still taking off, helping to prevent collateral damage over friendly territory.