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Anti-missile plane makes first test flight

From Mike Mount
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The maiden flight of an aircraft that officials hope will one day be able to shoot down U.S.-bound missiles took place Thursday over western Kansas, the Air Force said Friday.

The Airborne Laser is planned as one part of the overall Missile Defense Agency's program to create a shield of defense systems to protect the country "from incoming tactical or ballistic missiles."

The test flight, from McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas, was the first in a series designed to see if the modified Boeing 747 can still perform properly with its distinctive structural changes. The two-hour flight did not involve the firing of a laser, which is not scheduled to be installed until later this year, Boeing officials said.

The weapon, officially known as the Prototype Attack Laser, Model A-1, is designed to destroy missiles during their early launch stage by focusing a beam on the missile's pressurized fuel tank, causing it to explode.

The oxygen-iodine laser fired from the nose of the aircraft will be capable of burning a hole the size of a basketball in a missile's skin at a distance of 200 miles, generating temperatures hotter than 10,000 100-watt light bulbs, officials say. The actual temperature of the laser is classified, said Kenneth Englade, a spokesman for the project.

In 1996, Boeing won the $1.1 billion project, now worth $1.8 billion, and partnered up with other defense contractor giants TRW and Lockheed Martin to build separate parts of the system.

While the flight tests on the aircraft have begun, the goal of shooting down a missile with a laser has not yet been tested.

"The flight test represents a major step forward toward our ultimate goal of shooting down a ballistic missile with a beam of ultra-powerful light by the end of 2004," said the Airborne Laser program director, Col. Ellen M. Pawlikowski.

If the laser tests are successful, the program will be turned over to the Air Force as the first line of defense against a missile attack.


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