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Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing

   Recent Developments and

     Plans for the Future


    Col. Robert McMurry and
   Lt. Gen. Michael Dunn (ret.)
                        The George C. Marshall Institute

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Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
Developments and Plans for the Future


        Col. Robert McMurry and
       Lt. Gen. Michael Dunn (ret.)

        The George Marshall Institute
             Washington, D.C.
Col. Robert McMurry is Commander of the Airborne Laser Program Office at Kirt-
land Air Force Base, New Mexico. This mission of this wing level organization is to
demonstrate the capability of the ABL to shoot down a ballistic missile in its boost
phase. This is his second tour with the missile defense agency; in previous assignments
he was the F-16 System Program Manager and the Vice Wing Commander for Space
Based Infrared Systems.

Lt General (Retired) Michael M. Dunn is the President and CEO of the Air
Force Association (AFA). AFA is a non-profit grass roots organization with 125,000
members all over the United States, the Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. AFA's
mission is to educate the public about the importance of airpower, advocate for a
strong national defense and strong Air Force, and support the Air Force and the Air
Force family. Gen Dunn's last assignment on active duty was President, National De-
fense University, Washington, D.C.
                Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
                Developments and Plans for the Future

                 Col. Robert McMurry and Lt. Gen. Michael Dunn (ret.)

                                     June 27, 2008

Jeff Kueter: Thank you for joining us this morning for this conversation about the
airborne laser and boost-phase missile defense program. My name is Jeff Kueter and I
am the president of the Marshall Institute. It is my pleasure to bring together these two
excellent speakers to talk with us about the developments in this program and then
comment on how it might be used down the road.

       Of course, we all know that a layered defense is the goal of our program. That
means that we will have the ability to destroy attacking missiles in all phases of flight.
We know that we have seen noticeable development and even fielded capabilities at the
mid-course and terminal phases of our layered defense program. We have not seen as
much progress with activities focused on the boost phase. The boost-phase programs
were perhaps not as mature when the push for operational missile defense was an-
nounced several years back. And the current focus by the Congress and Administration
on providing capabilities that can be fielded quickly inevitably draws down resources
away from longer-run efforts that include the boost-phase programs, kinetic energy in-
terceptor and the airborne laser. We allow that to happen, in my view and in the view
of the Marshall Institute, at our own peril.

       It is widely recognized that boost phase defense prevents advantages to the de-
fense that are not present elsewhere, but intercepting in the boost phase is challenging.
When we shifted our focus from space-based systems to land-based systems in the
1990s, that left many to conclude that the boost-phase mission was one best left unad-
dressed, as those challenges of terrestrial deployments were just too hard. But the air-
borne laser represents a path forward, a path that begins to provide a defense for the
boost-phase, but which also opens the door for a host of potential applications for di-
rected energy and high-powered lasers. What we learn from this endeavor will pay
dividends in many other areas, aside from its contributions to the nation’s defense.
Many challenges are ahead, of course. The system is proving itself in many ways, and
the start of flight tests offer the opportunity to further prove itself. But aside from the
technical challenges, the key decisions about funding, concepts of operation and pro-
curement are before us. Indeed, some are already here.

       In a sense, how we answer those questions in the context of the airborne laser
and the kinetic energy interceptor, the other boost-phase program, will say much about
                                             Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
                                             Developments and Plans for the Future

how seriously the Department of Defense, the Missile Defense Agency, Congress, this
administration and the next take the challenge of constructing a boost-defense layer.
But let us make no mistake about the threat. Missiles remain instruments of power and
terror. They will continue to remain instruments of power and terror and grow in im-
portance to those countries that possess them. The trends are disheartening and they
only appear to be worsening. An effective, robust missile defense provides options to
our warfighters, freedom to respond to our policymakers, and a measure of protection
to our fellow citizens heretofore unavailable. We cannot forget that.

        It is my pleasure to have with us today to talk about the airborne laser Colonel
Robert McMurry, the commander of the Airborne Laser Program Office at Kirtland Air
Force Base. The mission of this wing-level organization is to demonstrate the capabil-
ity of the ABL to shoot down a ballistic missile in the boost phase. This is his second
tour with the missile defense agency; in previous assignments he was the F-16 System
Program Manager and the Vice Wing Commander for Space Based Infrared Systems.
We also have with us today Lieutenant General Michael Dunn (retired), the President
and CEO of the Air Force Association, a non-profit grass roots organization with
125,000 members all over the United States and elsewhere. Their mission is to edu-
cate the public about the importance of airpower, national defense, and a strong Air
Force. His last assignment on active duty was President of National Defense University
here in Washington, D.C. Gentlemen, thank you for being with us today.

Col. McMurry: Thank you, Jeff. Good morning, everybody. I am here today to give
you an update on the airborne laser program. We have made some pretty amazing
progress in the airborne laser since my first run through the program. I arrived at the
airborne laser for my first stint there in 2002 and was there until the middle of 2005. I
have been gone for about three years. I came back to the program in May and as a
person who is well-informed on this program, I was frankly pleasantly surprised at the
amount of progress that we had made in this technically demanding area. I have a
number of fairly rudimentary charts of where we are and what ABL is.

        The airborne laser is the air-based component of the ballistic missile defense sys-
tem and it is focused on acquiring, tracking, and killing ballistic missiles in their boost
phase. The system is a highly modified 747-400 aircraft. It is obviously deployable
and mobile and its focus, as part of that ballistic missile defense system, is to protect
the U.S., deployed forces, U.S. Allies, friends and areas of vital interest from ballistic
missile attack. It is a directed energy program and the leading edge in that arena.

        We are a boost phase system. The system works by detecting the missile plume
and then tracking the missile while it is boosting (Figure 1). The engagement sequence,
which I don’t have here, is important for later discussion, so I will go through that very
briefly for those who might not know it.

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                                             Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
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                                         Figure 1

        Essentially as the missile clears cloud break, infrared sensors that have a 360-
degree view around the aircraft detect the missile plume and guide a tracking laser to
the missile that then tracks the hard body of the missile. We track with a second solid-
state laser on the system and illuminate that. The laser then measures the atmospheric
distortion between us and the missile. In effect, by measuring that atmospheric distor-
tion, we now have the “prescription” of the atmosphere. Then we distort the high-
energy laser beam before it leaves the aircraft in such as way as to use the atmosphere
of the lens to refocus the beam onto the missile. This sounds like science fiction and
cosmic can’t-be-done stuff, but it is actually done quite often in astronomy and has been
demonstrated in several areas. We have demonstrated all of these phases through
flight tests and I will talk a little bit more about that later. The atmosphere then refo-
cuses the beam to create a coherent focus spot on the missile. The energy on the mis-
sile generates a crack in the missile and under pressure, the missile falls apart; it comes
unzipped. That sequence begins and runs all during the boost phase and it happens
very quickly.

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                                             Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
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                                         Figure 2

       We have what I consider the A-Team playing on this (Figure 2). We have the
best contractor team I could think of to put the airplane and the battle management
system together and the overall integration is led by Boeing out of Seattle. Mike Rinn
is our program manager and is sitting right over here. The laser modules themselves
are built by Northrop Grumman Space Park in Redondo Beach. Guy Renard is the
program officer there. The beam control system is built by Lockheed Martin-Sunnyvale
and Mark Johnson is the program manager there. These companies have worked as
professionally and as competently as I could possible hope for in terms of their coop-
eration in bringing about an integrated system that functions as a weapons system.

       The legacy of the system is one of weapons system planning. While it is a dem-
onstration program, a development program, for the Missile Defense Agency in the
sense that we are working very hard to prove this capability, it is not really a laboratory
program. It has its roots in our relationship with air combat command and we have air
combat command folks here today. From the very beginning, we have looked at this
system as a deployable operational asset for combatant commanders and as we bring

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                                              Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
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this thing together, it brings a significant operational capability to the combatant com-
mander that does not exist today.

                                          Figure 3

        The program progression is laid out in Figure 3. We began the program in
1996 and again those roots were with a very tight relationship between the program
office and air combat command. We were looking from the beginning to deployability
and operational utility of the system in theater. Its focus originally was theater ballistic
missiles because of the outflow from Desert Shield/Desert Storm and the SCUDs. It is
a fact, though, that there is nothing inherent in the ABL requiring it to be directed just
against theater missiles. The ABL is effective against all classes of missiles it can reach.
We basically spent 2000 to 2003 building and integrating the system. In 2004 and
2005, a couple of key events took place. The first is that we actually got the laser in its
six-module configuration in a 747 fuselage. That was no small feat and was a signifi-
cant achievement for the team. While we had tested each component of the laser in-
dependently, we hadn’t integrated and done so in its intended environment. We did
that; we also got back into flight tests to put the optical system in flight at that time. As
we completed that, we had a second phase of low-power testing.

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                                            Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
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        I will define some terms to make sure we are clear on them. “High-power” in-
volves the six-module megawatt class laser. “Low-power” is all the other lasers on the
system and the optical control systems associated with controlling the high-power beam
and getting it to the target. The high-power testing up to this point has all been ground
tested. We have successfully fired and tested the laser some seventy-plus times in a
747 fuselage on the ground. For the low-power system we have done both passive
flight testing, to prove that the sensors and systems can detect and acquire targets in
flight and track them, and active flight testing, in which the system detects the missile.
Remember I said the engagement sequence is then to engage the missile with solid-
state lasers that detect the missile body and measure the atmospheric composition. Us-
ing a low-power surrogate high-energy laser, in 2007 we demonstrated the complete
tracking and engagement sequence with a non-cooperative target.

                                         Figure 4

       The non-cooperative target is seen in Figure 4. Here a Big Crow aircraft had a
plume emulator. Basically you have to detect the plume, so we have to have some-
thing to simulate it; we are obviously not going to set the airplane on fire. We had an

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                                               Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
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emulator here that looked like a plume for the infrared system to track and it picked up.
Then the sequence is that the target eliminator finds the nose of the missile and the
beacon puts a spot on that. We measure the distortion from the atmosphere and then
put a surrogate high-energy laser on that missile body (obviously moving at a slightly
different rate than you would see in a normal missile) and compensated that low-energy
beam all through it. We completed all of that testing in 2007. This was the first time
to catch a non-cooperative target and show all of that engagement sequence all the
way through. This is obviously not a boosting ballistic missile, so the question is
whether the turret can do the kind of things that we need to track the rate of climb of a
ballistic missile. We actually tested that using an F-16 in a zoom climb near the air-
plane and demonstrated that we had all the slew rates and the tracking loop rates that
we needed to engage a missile.

        We talked about the timeline. So where are we now? The answer is that we
are moving into the critical flight testing of the fully integrated system. We are at pre-
sent integrating the laser. We have completed the activation of the laser at Edwards
Air Force Base on the flying aircraft. That is probably not the right phrasing; the air-
craft is actually on the ground, but it is the aircraft that will be in the flight test. We are
beginning the ground testing of that laser. To test the laser on the ground actually re-
quires a test of full vacuum, so there is a significant test infrastructure set up at Edwards
Air Force Base. We began vacuum loads testing and we actually finished the test on
that last night. The first step is to prove that the vacuum system works and that we
understand what it does to the airplane. We will then go through chemical flow testing
and what we call an “all systems blow down.” We will do everything that the laser re-
quires except flowing the last chemical to make it lase. Then we will finally move very
quickly from that, assuming that everything is in good working order. We crawl, walk
and run. We step carefully to make sure that the chemical flow is all safe and that eve-
rything is working. Then we will lase the laser on the aircraft onto a calorimeter that is
actually on the aircraft. In fact, that is one of the first knowledge points that we are try-
ing to get done this year: the airborne laser is to actually lase in the flight test aircraft
into the calorimeter. After that, the next step, and probably the most significant emo-
tional event this year for us, would be to take that laser past that calorimeter, through
the entire beam control system and out the nose of the turret. That will be the first
time that we have exposed that optical train to the megawatt class laser and that should
happen in the next few months.

       I am going to go back to the 2007 accomplishments. On the left side of Figure
5 is a picture of the aircraft in the hangar. I talked about how the system engages.
When you see the missile tracking and the high-energy laser looking at the target with-
out the tracking loops closed, you see a very fuzzy picture. In fact, I don’t think it is as
good as the image on the right side of Figure 5. What I have seen of the video of it, it

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                                             Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
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is very difficult to see the high energy laser on the target at all. It is very shadowy, a
little bit of light that plays across it.

                                         Figure 5

       What you see is the Surrogate High-Energy Laser (SHEL) with only one of the
major tracking loops closed. As the final tracking loop closes you see the spot focus
improve dramatically. As that composition is put into the control, you see this cloudy
illumination with the laser shift to a very tightly focused beam. These pictures were ob-
served at the aircraft; they are not simulated. They were actually measured by that Big
Crow aircraft which had cameras on the wing that registered what we are seeing on the
spot there. It is real data and you can fly it at significant operational ranges. As we got
through that system, we saw that we were ready for the integration that we are doing
now, so we will move pretty quickly through the summer.

        There are a number of things that folks have said, such as this is too hard to do.
And to be frank, it has been harder than people thought it would be. I think that is a
fair point. We have taken a little bit longer in each phase than we would like. And
people have said that we are not going to be able to track it, we are not going to be
able to compensate for the atmosphere, we are not going to be able to provide the
kind of control mechanisms needed to point this beam accurately and to put energy on
a missile in an effective way. What I can tell you is that step by step we have proven
those statements incorrect and proven that we can do this and that the system has
demonstrated every step of the sequence except the final “can we shoot it down?” So
that is where we are. Every bit of that engagement sequence that I have talked about
has been demonstrated in flight tests and under realistic conditions, with the exception
of firing the high-energy laser in flight. The high-energy laser has been fired on the
ground in a 747 fuselage in test conditions over seventy times. It is repeatable and it
generates the kind of energy that we expect. The surrogate high-energy laser that we
used in the low-power test has proven controllable. Our job at this point is to put this

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                                             Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
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high-energy laser into the aircraft, which we are doing and activating now, put it in
flight, and begin a progressive set of tests to demonstrate the capabilities to guide and
control the laser to a boosting target and then destroy it. There is a series of tests that
will begin with return to fly in the early 2009 time frame. The target is the demonstra-
tion of a shoot-down of a foreign material asset threat-representative system in the Au-
gust time frame.

        As you heard from my background, I have come through very different acquisi-
tion programs in the last few years, some in very good shape, some in not so good
shape. What I would tell you from examining this program right now is there is always
risk in a program like this. Some of this stuff we just haven’t done before. If you know
somebody who has put a megawatt class laser into a 747 and shot down a boosting
missile, send him on over! It hasn’t been done; it is a first-of-a-kind activity. But in as-
sessing a program as a program manager or an acquisition professional, my job is to
look at the risk in the program. I have seen programs over my stint that were optimis-
tic to the point of painful; they were just pie-in-the-sky and seventeen consecutive mira-
cles have to occur to get there. That is not the case here. I have looked at this sched-
ule and the plan is coherent. The risk in the schedule is manageable and while there is
a significant opportunity for discovery, in particular as we send that high-power beam
through the optical train all the way through the turret, we are not looking as some-
thing that is a pie-in-the-sky wish list at this point. What we have here is a coherent,
well thought out, deliberate crawl, walk and run type program that is getting to the run

       What I really look forward to doing is coming back in a little over a year and tell-
ing you about the successful shoot-down that we have had that should put a lot of the
arguments to rest. I think with that, General Dunn, I will stop and let you talk.

General Dunn: I want to say thank you to the Marshall Institute and to Jeff Kueter
for putting this on. I have been asked to talk about the operational impacts employ-
ment of the system and I am going to assume in my remarks that a) the Department of
Defense buys enough of these systems to create an operational effect, and b) that the
system works as it appears it is going to work.

       First, let me start with the need. Every combatant commander that has a re-
gional responsibility – and I have been in three of them, the most recent in Korea – has
high up on their requirements list the need to prevent ballistic missiles from damaging
key locations and harming troops. Every one of them is in a fight today for the systems
that we have operational; the Patriot missile is the predominant one. I can tell you, as
an example, that after 9/11, when we looked at the defense status of the United States
and our nuclear power plants, someone in the administration asked if we could get all
the Patriots back from overseas to defend all these nuclear power plants. I will make

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two points: one good thing is that nuclear power plants are pretty hard animals and it
is difficult to destroy them. The second thing is it takes a long time to move a Patriot
battalion battery anywhere. Once again, these combatant commanders are fighting for
these assets.

       The need for a layered and effective missile defense is actually clear, especially
with the proliferation of ballistic missiles around the world, to and from North Korea,
Iran and Syria, just to name a few. And increasingly, ballistic missiles are more lethal
than ever before, with chemical and biological weapons on them. We know that North
Korea plans to use their ballistic missiles with chemical-biological weapons on them and
they have literally tons and tons of these things; probably chemicals are what they will
use. Also increasingly these missiles are either hardened or mobile. North Korea, for
example, has silos built into mountains as well as an entire mobile class. That is impor-
tant because it is hard to get at these missiles any other way than after they are
launched. In other words, you can fly airplanes over them and try to find them, but if
they are deeply buried in silos, they are very difficult for an airborne attack to destroy.

        I would make the point that we have a paucity of tools to get at this problem
and to prevent attacks. All of them, of course, are kinetic of some sort and some even
try to prevent the launch of ballistic missiles by finding them and then bringing in air-
planes or AWACS or other ground systems to bear on them. The problem with that is
that it takes a great deal of intelligence to locate and track some of these mobile mis-
siles. Operationally the airborne laser has some significant advantages. First is the
mobility of the platform: it can literally fly to any hotspot in the world. It is important
to be able to do this because you don’t have to go through countries and establish bas-
ing rights. Some of you may have noticed that we are trying to get basing rights in
Eastern Europe for some land-based interceptors and it has been a big fight; Russia has
objected and so on. You can actually deploy these things in a moment when the crisis
starts and you are probably going to get a little more cooperation from some countries
to put what looks like a 747 freighter on an airfield somewhere. Also this system is not
tethered to a particular threat, so instead of having to spread these things all around
the world to worry about the threat from Iran or Syria or North Korea or places like
that, you can have a set of these that you can put any place in the world when some-
thing pops up.

        Another advantage, I think, is the range of effectiveness. The exact range is
classified, but it is in the hundreds of kilometers. So you are going to be able to shoot
a target pretty far away. You are going to hit something with essentially the speed of
light. Time is hugely important because you see something happening and it is impor-
tant to be able to get something on it right away. The airplane is refuelable and there-
fore it can stay airborne and can go anyplace fairly quickly. It has multiple shots. The
number, of course, depends on the type of threat and the amount of energy needed to

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kill the target and a lot of other factors. I would also argue that the airborne laser has a
cheap shot, that is, when you fire some kind of ground-based missile at something, you
are launching multi-million dollars of missile going up to try to find these things,
whereas this thing is less than sixty thousand dollars per shot, by the time you replace
the chemicals.

        We talked a little bit about boost-phase attack, but think about a ballistic missile
from the vantage point up in the air. A boost-phase attack is important because, first
of all, the missile is the slowest it is going to be; it gathers speed as it goes up. It is
more predictable and you are probably going to get it before it can deploy any kind of
decoys. My favorite advantage of the ABL is that when you destroy a missile, the
pieces, including hopefully pieces of the warhead, fall back on the enemy. If you hit
something that is en route to you over Alaska or someplace like that, you have pieces
that will fall wherever. I like the fact that if North Korea launches a missile and it can
be attacked by something like this, the pieces fall right back down on North Korea.

        We are going to have a suite of sensors on the 747 so in the future we will be
able to augment other sensors, either airborne or in space. So we are going to use this
to feed the network. Unlike other so-called high value assets (a term we use in the Air
Force that indicates big, slow things that have to be protected), ABL will have a self-
protection capability, in fact a potential that it could defend other large platforms from
aerial attack.

       I think the greatest operational advantage is its potential for the future. This
portends a shift from kinetic solutions to directed energy in all types of missions. It is a
potential game changer, if you will. I can see a case where you could take this and de-
velop something into an air-to-ground attack capability, a potential to use against sur-
face-to-air missiles, a potential to deter use of ballistic missiles. For example, in Desert
Storm when the mobile missiles hit the road, we had a limited amount of time we could
get to them. But if you could prove frequently that when you launch a missile, the
pieces will come back down on you, the command chain will think differently about
how they are going to employ their missiles and how they are going to use them.

       I also see a potential for a platform like this to be used in cruise missile defense.
There are some seventy countries today – and the Marshall Institute has done a great
job on this; I was telling Jeff that I use a lot of his material that he puts on the web –
that possess cruise missiles. In the not too distant future it is not inconceivable that
some might fall into the hands of terrorists, much like the rockets did to Hezbollah last
year in the Israel-Lebanon conflict. We currently have no effective defense against
cruise missiles.

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        The next point pains me, as a former fighter pilot, but I see this platform could
actually be used in the air-to-air mission area. It would make some of the airplanes that
I flew obsolete. But I could see in the future that either this platform or a spin-off from
the laser could be put on the fighters that we have in production today and we may end
up with an air-to-air weapon that way. I also see the potential as an enhanced sensor
suite to become an AWACS-type of thing, where we could actually detect airborne plat-
forms and then even have the potential to shoot them down.

       If you really want to get exotic, I could see a case where we could put mirrors
out there on UAVs and bounce beams off them. The great thing about AB is that it is
going to cause the operator to examine these and other concepts. Once we get this
thing in their hands and they build an ops concept and are able to use it, we are going
to find that they are going to modify it. They are going to have requirements needs
that we don’t even know about now.

        Let me close with a vignette, to go back to Col. McMurry’s talk. That is, I don’t
know whether this thing is going to work. I trust folks that think it is going to work.
But I have to go back twenty-five years ago, when I was in Air Command and Staff
College. We had a speaker who was a third-term congressman from Georgia by the
name of Newt Gingrich. He was asked whether the Strategic Defense Initiative was a
good idea. He basically said, “Well, I don’t know, but I do know that our adversaries
are working on systems like this, that we spend precious little on research and devel-
opment in this country, and the potential for spillovers in other mission areas is abso-
lutely huge. Given all that, I clearly support it.” I am a little like that with this, in that if
this works, it is going to have a huge impact on warfare for the future. So let me stop

Questions and answers.

Question: General, you referred to your experience as a combat commander. Put
yourself back in that context. If this system were being offered to you, what are the
criteria that you use, given that leadership role, to evaluate how you would use it and
what context you would use it in? What are the criteria that it needs to have met in or-
der for it to be a valid, usable capability to you as a warfighter in that role?

Gen. Dunn: I think that it is going to work; it has to be proven that it is going to
work. Especially from my assignment in Korea, what I like about the system is that
there are very few deployment assets needed to go with it. I mean, the airplane will fly
itself out. But there is going to be other support, a couple C-17s worth of loads. I like
the fact that I can put it someplace else other than where we are in battle. I like the
fact that we can base it in Japan and fly it off the coast and fly it over the South Korean

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airspace itself. The neat thing about it is its flexibility. The number one thing I would
be concerned about is flexibility and how fast I could get it there. As you know, warn-
ing time in Korea is not that great. We expect a couple of weeks or so maximum
warning time to get something there. If you are going to get any forces there quickly,
they have to fly. There is no question about that and it is very difficult to deploy an en-
tire Patriot battalion to bring over. So I like its flexibility and mbility.

Col. McMurry: The thing I would pile on to that is we don’t take it for granted that
the combatant commanders want the system. We have recently captured where we are
with the airborne laser and what its capability is, what its deployability is, what it would
take to deploy it, how far it could go from where you base it, depending on the various
assumptions, and what its effects have been in war games. We took that presentation
to the combatant commanders and asked them, given what we have today – and we
have it at today’s tested level of performance – or at a production level of performance,
is this something that is operationally useful to you? The unanimous answer has been
yes, absolutely. I think that is a credit to both the technical achievements that the gov-
ernment-industry team has brought about and to the roots of the program. We started
from the mindset that this must be an operational deployable and useful system and we
were very tightly enmeshed with the operators from the beginning.

Question: To follow up on that, could you tighten up a little more on the concept of
operations, how long can they fly and how many of them would be required for a real
meaningful capability? They aren’t exactly stealthy. They may be safe from an air at-
tack, but what about the variety of ground missiles that might be available, and so on?

Gen. Dunn: From an operational perspective, any missile that is going to attack them
is going to present itself as a target. In the case of a ground SAM-type missile, espe-
cially the long-range ones that are deployed in the world today, they go up above into
the exo-atmosphere and then come down, so they will present themselves as a viable
target. A for the operational concept – and you might know more than I do – you can
only stay airborne a certain period of time and you are going to run out of the chemi-
cals on board to laser at some point in time. So the number of systems that you are
going to need is going to depend on the threat, how many of these ballistic missiles are
flying at you and where they are headed. An interesting thing to think about is dealing
with Korea, say five years in the future; they are not far away from an ICBM. It is an
interesting command-and-control concept to think about the fact that you may want to
save some shots in case we are involved in Korea for ICBMs headed for the United
States. Of course, that would require intelligence, etc. Now if you want to keep some-
thing airborne on station 24/7, the rule of thumb is normally three or so to one, so
24/7 requires three. But I would suggest it may be shot dependent, not necessarily just
how long can it stay there.

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                                              Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
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Col. McMurry: Let me see if I can put a few more of the pieces in there. A full pro-
duction run is usually modeled with seven aircraft, but with the deployment of about
five. It depends on how many orbits and what the situation is as to where you are try-
ing to cover. The common argument is two aircraft to cover an orbit and for every pair
of orbits a spare aircraft, so you end up with about five to cover two orbits on a 24/7
basis. The deployment timeline is a lot faster than you would think. Because it is an
airborne platform, wherever you want to go in the world, you add about a day to that
transit time to get it there, to actually load the laser fuel in it. That includes if you had
to mix the laser fuel. It is not a long process to get the laser fueled. The laser fuel itself
has some durability. It doesn’t last forever, but what it means is that you can deploy
the aircraft without the supporting fuel mixing and loading capability and still have a
pretty significant length of operations before that theater capability is in place. As with
any other type of high-value asset, we obviously have concerns regarding air defenses
or any other threat to it, but we deal with that with AWACS today; we deal with that
with any other system that we have. It is the nature of our system that we have a
complex and capable response to threats to the aircraft. So we would deal with that
just like we would any other high-value asset protection and it has some inherent capa-
bility of defense.

Question: This plane, this system is only as powerful as its ability to defend itself.
Can you defend yourself against a laser?

Col. McMurry: In terms of defense, there is not an inherent self-protection specifi-
cally against a laser threat. You would deal with it through your understanding and in-
telligence preparations of the battlefield. What is the threat that we are out against,
where is it and what is the concern? It can be threatened; it is an airplane. But I am
not sure that I have a better answer than that.

Gen. Dunn: I was just going to say that for the threat countries that we would use this
against, North Korea or Iran, for example, the technology to find one of these systems,
track it, point a laser at it and bring enough power to bear on the whole thing, frankly
is not there. That capability is very high-end. I would also say that no airplane is in-
vulnerable, but I can say that no ground system is either. One of the ways we do it is
we reduce the signature of the system or provide countermeasures on board the sys-
tem. Presumably if a threat pops up in the distant future, you could do some of the
same things you would do with other airplanes with this one.

Col. McMurry: I think that there is one other aspect of the question that we didn’t
really hit on. In terms of threatening an air platform or threatening terrestrial systems,
atmosphere is a huge issue. In effect, when you are shooting a ballistic missile, you are
missing most of the atmosphere. What that creates is something akin to the stealth

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                                              Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
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argument that you have with a stealthy aircraft. In effect, it allows us to shoot a much
longer range at a ballistic missile than it does for them to shoot a laser at the aircraft
flying in the air. So we have some inherent environmental protection, actually, that
gives us a natural stand-off capability.

Question: Twenty years ago more or less, I was in the environment of High Frontier
with General Graham. He had the most powerful minds in the country around him
and they spoke about a space-based laser. What do you think would be the advantage
of a laser based in space? Would it be superior to the ABL?

Col. McMurry: An interesting question. There are a lot of advantages to space sys-
tems. The problem is one of practicality; another is the issue of trying to get sufficient
power to mass ratio. To put something there is extremely expensive and it is some-
thing that is difficult to maintain and control at that point. It is not impossible, but it is
a challenge. If we extend the crawl-walk-run concept that I talked about earlier, we are
running with the airborne laser, but you are running really fast to get it into a space sys-
tem because what you have to do there is get sufficient power with less weight and a
more sophisticated control system. Do I think that in the future we will get there? Yes.
Do I think it is around the corner? It depends on how big the street it. It is a ways off.
From a strategic advantage, it is huge. From a practical standpoint right now, we are a
long way away from that and we are not a long way away from being able to do an air-
borne laser.

Gen. Dunn: Let me add one more point. One of the reasons why it is useful to
spend some R&D and deployment money on a system like this on is that the next gen-
eration of these is going to go solid-state in some way. Because of the disadvantages
of using chemicals and having to plus all the weight up, if you could move to a solid-
state laser, I think it would be very feasible in space.

Question: One issue I am bumping up against in my work is the question of counter-
measures and how one reacts to certain things. I am a supporter of the ABL program.
Like you, I reserve judgment about procurement, but I think as an R&D program it is
great. But assuming your enemy won’t just sit there and let you negate what he has
done, how do you deal with countermeasures like in the boost phase, if the rocket just
twists so that your laser beam gets smeared into an annulus around the missile? There
are potentially others. Do you take them into account when you size your laser?
Spinning a rocket on its axis isn’t that difficult a thing to do.

Col. McMurry: That is a little bit of a delicate subject, but let me suggest that we have
looked extensively at what we can do to counter this system. The answer comes down
to two things: the most effective things that you can do are not that easy to do and the

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                                             Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
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laser is very powerful. Even if you do the best you can, this is a capable system. There
is a reciprocal nature of warfare, which is what you are talking about. We would ex-
pect any adversary to do everything he can. Our assessment is that it is not that easy
to do and there is still a pretty significant operational capability, even if you do it per-

Gen. Dunn: The point I would make is that I love R&D and it is great, but at some
point in time you have to field something. It is not going to help any combatant com-
mander out there until we can get enough of these out there to do the job that they
need done.

Question: Some people have said that if you put a coating including just ordinary
white paint on the missile that the laser bounces off and it defeats the laser. Any truth
to this at all?

Col. McMurry: I would go back to the statement I just made. It is not that straight-
forward or simple. If you do the countermeasures perfectly, you have it all nailed.
Even then there is a significant operational capability.

Gen. Dunn: Let me add that we use lasers a lot in everything, in dentistry etc. I no-
tice no problem with shiny white things, in terms of lasers bouncing off and not being

Question: Could you tell us about the budget for the program and whether or not you
feel it is sufficient?

Col. McMurry: Our budget request for 2009 is on the order of $420 million as it
stands now. The vast majority of that is focused on getting us through shoot-down. It
is an appropriate amount and is embedded through the Missile Defense Agency and
balanced against all their other requirements. You are asking a specific question re-
garding budget, but it drives into affordability. How do you move forward in this sys-
tem? We have work to do with regard to making sure that this is an affordable, field-
able system. We have sufficient funding at this point to get through that shoot-down
demonstration and at that point there will be a lot of decisions as to how we proceed
forward to getting to a fielded weapons system that does things for the combatant com-
manders as well as being part of the ballistic missile defense system.

Gen. Dunn: But let’s be clear: there is no money in the President’s budget or in the
longer term for procurement. At some point in time, the decision will have to be made
whether we want to buy some of these things.

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                                             Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
                                             Developments and Plans for the Future

Question: I’d like to ask a couple quick technical questions. You said you had two
other solid-state lasers on board, in addition to the main laser?

Col. McMurry: There are solid-state lasers on the system. In the design of the sys-
tem, there are actually three solid-state lasers. In the test program, we will be using the
target illuminator laser, which tracks the body of the missile and finds the target point
on that missile, and the beacon-illuminator laser, which measures that “prescription” of
the atmosphere. The third one is actually in the pod on the top of the airplane. That
is the advanced ranging system, which will not be part of this test profile. What that is
really designed to do is when you get that initial thing, you get a very precise state vec-
tor on the missile so that you can send through Link 16 all the things back into the sys-
tem and say here is where it is, here is where it came from, here’s where it is going. It
is a multi-laser game.

Question: You said the battle management on board predicts the trajectory where the
target missile might land. Is that completely autonomous or does it count on input
from SIBRS on orbit or other sources?

Col. McMurry: We can take that, but the system is autonomous.

Question: And then the command and control links are all just like UHF radio?

Col. McMurry: Yes, primarily through Link 16.

Question: And my last question, can this operate from the ground or do you have to
be in flight?

Col. McMurry: It has to be in flight. The battle management system will work on the
ground, obviously, but to fire the main laser you have to have the ability to draw a vac-
uum, that we are doing right now. That big sphere at Edwards Air Force Base is to
simulate the operational altitude.

Question: Pardon my ignorance, but I have never gotten a really good explanation
for this. You have a very large plane that doesn’t fly very fast and it has to be pretty
close to the theater and it has to be up there. How do you protect it? I know that the
laser can do a pretty good job. Is that enough? Do you have to send a large aggrega-
tion of defending planes?

Gen. Dunn: This is exactly like AWACS, or airborne refueling. This is exactly like
Rivet Joint that listens to the things. We call these “high-value airborne assets” in the
vernacular. This is like anything else. I take issue with the statement “doesn’t fly very

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                                              Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
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fast. It flies at .85 or .9 Mach, which is pretty fast. It is moving across the territory and
flying a lot faster than ships. To get to it is an interesting problem in itself. Can it be
done? Yes. Normally what we do when we plan an operation is we actually put fight-
ers up to protect these high-value assets and/or assign ground systems that look at the
area, too. So it is a complex defense problem to be able to do it. The advantage this
thing has is there is a potential that it has a capability to defend itself, unlike the tank-
ers, unlike the AWACS, unlike the Rivet Joint, unlike the Global Hawk, the airborne
intelligence assets, etc.

Col. McMurry: There is nothing that says that its protection can’t be lumped in with
those others. It is not something that has to be off all on its own.

Question: Has the con op been developed?

Col. McMurry: The con op has been developed.

Question: Do you believe that this technology will have any immediate or future im-
pact on ASAT weapons, keeping in mind the Chinese ASAT test last year?

Col. McMurry: Our focus at this point really is on shooting down missiles. It is a
ways off to have that discussion. We are focused very much right now on the ballistic
missile threat and not on that.

Question: Could you talk a little about the planned shoot-down? First of all, when is
the latest planned date? And where do you go from there? Is the mere fact that you
may succeed in shooting down the target enough to move straight into acquisition deci-
sions, or do you plan an extended test period?

Col. McMurry: That is actually a very good question. The demonstration is set now
in August 2009. That, of course, assumes that we don’t discover something anywhere
between “concerning” to “hideous” in our testing that goes on between now and then.
It will be in a range that is significant. “System demonstration” and “shoot down” are
not exactly the same. You need more than just a shoot down to successfully demo the
system. You demonstrate that lethality and there is an envelope extension of that ca-
pability that naturally follows that. Part of that program is in the planning stages, in
terms of actual mechanization and contracting at this point. There is naturally debate
on how much of that is needed, but I don’t think you are going to satisfy all of the gov-
ernment’s requirements that you need to say that thing is ready to procure by just a
single shoot-down. It is just not going to happen. So what we have to do is show the
operational utility. Part of that plan is things like, take the system now and shoot
something down, but instead of shoot it down here, fly to Hawaii or somewhere and do

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                                             Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
                                             Developments and Plans for the Future

it there: prove that you can move it and then use it. So there are number of those
variations on a theme that start to pin down the modeling you have done to support
the concept of operations and do it in a way that is beyond just the computer model-
ing, but to really anchor that in real-life, purposeful execution of a system in its opera-
tional environment.

Gen. Dunn: I would note that if the test works in August, that come September the
U.S. commander in Korea is going to be asking for that asset to be built into his war
plan. Even though it is not ready and is still in testing, he has very few choices in deal-
ing with some of these threats.

Col. McMurry: I would add to that that our analysis of the test system of this first
prototype suggests that it has a pretty significant operational capability as it is, as the
first of a kind.

Question: Just to put a slightly finer point on this, in your consideration of possible
post-August 2009 shoot-down demonstration, how far out are you going in terms of
the sort of testing you think may be necessary to prove out the model? What sort of
time frame are you looking at before you get to any acquisition decisions?

Col. McMurry: It is something in deliberation right now. It ranges from months to
years. I would tell you frankly it is probably driven more by budgetary issues, but from
an operational need perspective, we’d like to do it as fast as we can. From an industry
base, we would like to do it as soon as we can because the industry base for this busi-
ness is thin. There is not a lot of bench depth in terms of a lot of companies in here,
because there is not a lot of commercial demand for some of this stuff. So we would
like to do it sooner rather than later. We are balancing industry operational demands
versus budget and verification of the kind of things that you generally want for a sys-
tem, just knowing that it meets the mission that it is required to do and that it is afford-
able and suitable, meaning that it can be operationally maintained and operated over
periods of time of need.

Question: What is the best price tag to keep in mind for future aircraft with full capa-

Col. McMurry: I think that you are looking at a billion-dollar airplane. When you
look at life cycle, estimates are significant. The obvious question is, is that an afford-
able system? I would tell you now that we make things affordable when we decide that
it is what we have to do. We are working very hard with the industry teams. How do
you make this into something you can produce and develop in a predictable, affordable
and efficient manner? If you talk to the Boeing, Northrop and Lockheed folks, they will

George C. Marshall Institute                19
                                              Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
                                              Developments and Plans for the Future

tell you they have a lot of ideas on doing that and doing it right. What I would also tell
you is that from an operational perspective, building that system, we would always like
it to be cheaper. We would like to have an alternative, but there isn’t one, and for a
boost-phase defense, it is in the lead on this effort. So that is where, I think. the
budget debate will come: is it a necessary system, and if it is, then the affordability flows
from that.

Gen. Dunn: I would note for the press folks that I have on my website at afa.org a
note from the President on how you buy airplanes. I am always suspicious when some-
one says, “How much does it cost?” There are fly-away costs, acquisition costs, and
procurement costs. R&D is amortized and it depends on whether you have R&D from
another system. For example, the F-22 R&D flowed into the F-35 and on and on.
The question for the decision makers is, what is the next article cost for me, and of
course, the more you make, the cheaper it is. There is a learning curve that the indus-
try goes through. Even though you ask a simple question, there is a very complex an-

Question: From what I have understood, the Korean peninsula seems like a reason-
able place in terms of range. You also mentioned Iran as a possible theater. Where
else might you think about deploying this, where the potential adversary could move his
missiles back and have enough range to get to you, but you wouldn’t have enough
range to get to him?

Gen. Dunn: You are asking where the next war will be. We have a war plan to de-
fend Taiwan. Is China going to use ballistic missiles against Taiwan? Are we going to
be called upon to go there and support, or not support, that effort?

Question: China has their missiles based farther back than where your airborne laser
could reach them. It is not going to help; that is the issue I am bringing up.

Gen. Dunn: They have a large number of ballistic missiles facing right across the
straits. I actually can see the flexibility of the system; I can see use in a number of ar-
eas. I can see a lot of allies interested in it, Israel being one of the primary ones. It is
hard to sit here and say, “Where are you going to use that?” If you asked me in July
1990 if we were going to be involved in Desert Storm in seven or eight months, I
would have said, “No way.” The Soviet Union had just fallen down, etc. What you
have to do with the military is have sustained investment in some of these capital pro-
grams, which is a lesson we have not learned. We have taken our peace dividend and
the Air Force hasn’t bought any airplanes to speak of in fifteen years or more. You
can’t turn out these kinds of things inside of a known crisis time.

George C. Marshall Institute                 20
                                      Airborne Laser (ABL): Assessing Recent
                                      Developments and Plans for the Future

Kueter: Gentlemen, thank you very much. We appreciate your comments.

                                 * * *

George C. Marshall Institute         21

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tential of Space to Provide Energy for Earth (August 8, 2007)

Aristides Patrinos and Lawrence Kumins – Potential and Prospects for Cellulosic
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Michael Canes - Is Cap & Trade the Wrong Policy to Curb Greenhouse Gases for
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(March 21, 2007)

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         The Marshall Institute – Science for Better Public Policy
       Board of Directors

      Will Happer, Chairman
       Princeton University

       William O’Keefe, CEO
        Solutions Consulting

       Jeff Kueter, President

        Robert Butterworth
        Aries Analytics, Inc.

         Gregory Canavan
   Los Alamos National Laboratory

       Thomas L. Clancy, Jr.

           John H. Moore
President Emeritus, Grove City College

        Rodney W. Nichols
    President and CEO Emeritus,
   New York Academy of Sciences

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