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September 13, 2005What was once considered fringe science—the directed energy weapon—should become more and more prevalent in the years ahead, according to USAF Col. John Daniels, the director of the Airborne Laser program.

“I’m convinced that directed energy is going to be a way of life for the future for fighting wars,” said Daniels. It may take 10 or 20 years, but “you’re going to see a lot of directed energy weapons.”

Daniels told attendees at AFA’s Air & Space Conference that the “graduating exercise” for the first major operational DE application—the ABL or YAL-1A Attack Airborne Laser—is planned for 2008. The focus of that graduation is the shoot down of a ballistic missile in flight.

The goal of the ABL program is to shoot down ballistic missiles in the boost phase of flight while they are still over enemy territory.

Daniels said that once ABL “graduates” in 2008, the program would gain a second aircraft—one that will bridge the gap between the prototype and a production version. He admitted the program has had its challenges, but he said, “We’re way past the view graph stage.” There is no plan by the Missile Defense Agency, which added management of ABL development to its stable in 2001, to rush this program. (Read “Not Downbeat, Just Realistic.”)

While the Air Force shepherded ABL development, there was talk about potential air-to-air use, but, since moving to MDA, the program has concentrated on missiles, said Daniels. But, he added, “I don’t think that will go away—an airplane is a soft target.” He believes there will be many more uses for directed energy weapons in years ahead.

The Pentagon definitely will find more and varied uses, including deployment against aircraft, for energy weapons, Daniels maintained.

He said the ABL program, eventually, would comprise a fleet of seven airplanes, with one set aside for training and one budgeted for depot maintenance.  

While the ABL system uses common industrial chemicals to power its carbon dioxide laser, the technology employed by the ABL is complex. Daniels did note that stationing a chemical laser system on a Boeing 747 is pretty stable, thanks to a massive bulkhead between the crew and the laser. He added, though, that carrying an enormous six-ton prism—which Daniels refers to as the “world’s largest contact lens”—is not an easy task.

Daniels said that advances in technology will allow smaller and more mobile weapons to be deployed on a variety of platforms.  He explained that with the ABL, “we’re plowing new ground.”