The Airborne Laser May Rise Again But It Will Look Very DifferentTyler Rogoway8/18/15 7:55pmFiled to: Airborne LaserLasersDronesABM16022EditPromoteShare to KinjaToggle Conversation toolsGo to permalinkThe Airborne Laser program can be tracked back to the Reagan years, and after billions in development dollars were spent and a custom-built 747 prototype was built, what was to be a super-weapon that could shoot down ballistic missiles over their countries of origination turned out to be a super-flop. AdvertisementNow, with the drastic advances in laser capabilities over the last half decade, the Defense Department wants to resurrect the airborne laser, albeit in a very different form.“In its previous incarnation, the AL-1 system consisted of a 747-400F with a huge laser turret grafted onto its nose that housed a massive adaptive optics mirror, which could focus the jet’s laser energy through the atmosphere.”AdvertisementInside the YAL-1 a series of SUV sized tanks filled with the chemicals needed to drive its Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) lined its cargo bay. Eventually this complex and massive system would have enough chemicals onboard for 20 shots, and the 747-400 platform, known as the YAL-1 in testing, could be refueled in the air for long duration orbits near enemy territory.Although the YAL-1 was an impressive looking weapon system, and on paper it seemed like an amazing capability to have, it never came near to achieving its design requirements and it was plagued with problems during testing. In the end, it would have had to orbit too close to potential enemy ballistic missile launch sites to be effective, and even if greater effective range could have been achieved, a fleet of these huge aircraft orbiting continuously near enemy countries would have been prohibitively expensive. AdvertisementSponsoredSecretary of Defense Robert Gates said of the program: “I don’t know anybody at the Department of Defense, Mr. Tiahrt, who thinks that this program should, or would, ever be operationally deployed. The reality is that you would need a laser something like 20 to 30 times more powerful than the chemical laser in the plane right now to be able to get any distance from the launch site to fire... So, right now the ABL would have to orbit inside the borders of Iran in order to be able to try and use its laser to shoot down that missile in the boost phase. And if you were to operationalize this you would be looking at 10 to 20 747s, at a billion and a half dollars apiece, and $100 million a year to operate. And there’s nobody in uniform that I know who believes that this is a workable concept.”Now with the advancements in solid-state lasers, which are much smaller than their chemical cousins, and with development programs that are seeking to mount them on everything from AC-130 gunships to fighter aircraft, the Pentagon is looking at procuring a new airborne laser. This one would be unmanned and fly at much higher altitudes than its 747 grandfather.