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4:30pm ET, 4/16


Tomorrow Today

Laser-equipped 747 designed to blast ballistic missiles

Air Force plans new role for workhorse aircraft

airborne laser
Artist's conception of the Airborne Laser in action  

WICHITA, Kansas (CNN) -- With its unmistakably equine nose and giant wingspan, the Boeing 747 is a worldwide symbol of a workhorse that has been bearing people and cargo around the globe for three decades.

The new millennium could give the old plane a newer, meaner image.

Engineers are making plans to change the gentle giant into a hot-blooded killer with a swiveling nose-cone laser beam theoretically capable of destroying enemy missiles hundreds of miles away.

That's the idea behind the U.S. Air Force's Airborne Laser program, or ABL, a $1.6 billion project now under way primarily at the Boeing Co.'s maintenance and modification center here.

CNN's Rick Lockridge looks at the technology behind the Airborne Laser

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In a 1 million-square-foot hangar, illuminated by brilliant orange and blue spotlights, surrounded by scaffolding and swathed in protective plastic, is the first of what the Air Force hopes will eventually become a fleet of seven 747s capable of knocking missiles out of the sky.

"The Airborne Laser program is the culmination of about 20 years of research," said Col. Ellen Pawlikowski, the program's director. "It is the Air Force's first directed energy weapon, and we will use it to shoot down Scud missiles and other enemy missiles in the air to protect our troops in the field."

Whether the ABL fleet becomes a reality will in large part depend on how well the aircraft in Wichita performs in future flight and live-fire tests. If it flies, literally and figuratively, future ABL 747s could give the U.S. military a "first-shot" anti-missile weapon that would plug a hole in current national defenses.

And it will usher the world into a new era of warfare, where light itself is used as a weapon.

"To have a program that can go out and touch someone at hundreds of miles instantly at the speed of light is something that I think is going to change warfare now and in the future," said Maj. Pedro S. Oms. "We are doing something that is potentially revolutionary, and (are) proud to be part of it."

Record modifications

When it finally emerges from the Wichita hangar sometime in 2002, the revamped 747-400F will have undergone more than 1.2 million man hours of "mods," or modifications.

That's more mods than any aircraft in Boeing history, said Boeing's Brad Gorsuch.

That includes the number of custom changes made on the twin 747s that make up Air Force One, the U.S. presidential aircraft. "And, believe me, a tremendous amount of mods were performed on those planes," said Boeing's Dick Richter.

Critics play wait and see

Because the program is expensive and technologically challenging and has yet to be fully tested, critics and Pentagon watchdog groups are taking a wait-and-see approach before passing judgment.

747 in hangar
The prototype Airborne Laser aircraft in the Boeing Wichita hangar  

"If we give the Air Force enough money and enough time, the Airborne Laser will probably achieve many of its goals," said John Pike, director of and formerly of the Federation of American Scientists. He considers the project probably a very good investment.

But engineers cannot control every aspect of its development, cautioned Pike, who oversees an organization that promotes shifting the United States from conventional defenses to newer, state-of-the-art military readiness.

What happens if it is faced with an adversary outside of its design capabilities? he asked. What about cloudy conditions that would impede the ability of the laser to find and track the target?

"As with every other weapon, there is no reason to hope that it is going to work perfectly all of the time," Pike said.

Old, new technology

The megawatt-plus laser to be installed aboard the laser-outfitted 747 is actually some of the oldest technology the plane will carry. (The exact wattage is classified, but the Air Force says it uses more than 1 million watts.)

Developed by the U.S. Air Force in 1977, the laser relies on a chemical reaction between chlorine, hydrogen peroxide and iodine to create an actual explosion of light. That light is funneled down a long mirrored tube and exits the aircraft through a flexible lens in the nose cone.

Air Force engineers hope to create laser blasts capable of exceeding seven minutes, with planes able to fire off 20 to 30 shots before landing.

The reinforced nose cone, by comparison, is a recent innovation. Boeing engineers had to remove the prototype's original nose, substituting a seven-ton turret to channel and direct the laser. It had to be precise, in spite of its position on the very tip of the plane.

"That swiveling nose cone has been quite an engineering challenge for us," said Boeing's Gorsuch.

That wasn't the only change to the ABL 747. The chemical reaction that produces the lethal laser is a violent event, capable of killing anyone nearby, so the revised aircraft's fuselage will be bisected by a solid wall amidships. It's called a "1,000 bulkhead," located 1,000 inches, or roughly 80 feet, from the aircraft's front tip, and will isolate the two pilots and four weapons specialists who make up the crew.

No trigger man

No human finger will actually pull a trigger. Onboard computers will decide when to fire the beam.

Machinery will be programmed to fire because human beings may not be fast enough to determine whether a situation warrants the laser's use, said Col. Lynn Wills of U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command, who is to oversee the battle management suite.

The nose-cone turret is still under construction  

"This all has to happen much too fast," Wills said. "We will give the computer its rules of engagement before the mission, and it will have orders to fire when the conditions call for it."

The laser has about only an 18-second "kill window" in which to lock on and destroy a rising missile, said Wills.

"We not only have to be fast, we have to be very careful about where we shoot," said Wills, who noted that the firing system will have a manual override. "The last thing we want to do is lase an F-22 (fighter jet)."

The laser doesn't have to melt through an enemy missile's metal skin to kill it. The beam only has to weaken the missile's exterior, the Air Force believes; the projectile's speed and pressure exerted on it should finish the job.

"What we're out to accomplish is ... weakening the metal," said Capt. Eric Moomey of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. "We intend to cause a rupture from within the rocket."

The technology works in fact as well as theory. The Air Force has used a test laser on two simulated missile tanks -- one made of metal, the other made of a thick polymer mesh -- at a testing facility at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Their gaping holes bear silent proof that the proposal is more than blue-sky wishing.

"Everything we have has all been based on good solid science development over the last 20 years," said Pawlikowski.

Striking fears in the enemy

If the modifications to the laser-equipped 747 continue on schedule (work is on time and on budget at present, say Air Force and Boeing officials), the first flight tests will take place early next year. Assessing the plane's flying capabilities, plus calibrating its weaponry, will take more than a year.

If that goes according to plans, the ABL 747 in September 2003 will take to the air for its greatest challenge: shooting down a number of simulated Scud missiles.

If those first tests go well, the ABL program is set to move into full-scale production, with six aircraft to be delivered and in service by 2009. The prototype aircraft will also become part of the fleet.

And just in time, said Wills, who can rattle off the names of nations that have missiles capable of dumping toxins or even detonating a nuclear warhead on enemy countries.

"We think we are really going to need those aircraft," he said. "I want our enemies thinking, 'Uh-oh, I've got something out there that I'm coming up against that I can't defeat.'"

Airborne Laser
Federation of American Scientists - Airborne Laser
Boeing - Airborne Laser
Starfie Optical Range - U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory

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