It is sad to see this program go, even just because of the whiz-bang nature of it, and hey lets be honest it looks really cool. I always have enjoyed explaining to people who want to know about some of the coolest weapons America has in the works that there is actually a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet with a laser turret the size of a Mack Truck installed in its nose! Although the YABL-1 never really did prove itself as an operational concept, and the dream of a small fleet of ABL-1′s basically shutting down a rogue state’s ballistic missile capability never came to pass, the USAF Airborne Laser’s story may end up being more promising than one would think since it was relegated to testing by SecDef Gates. A move that basically put the writing on the wall that the ABL-1′s time was finite.
In an article written by Aviation Week’s Amy Butler, MDA Director Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly says that his team is now focused on a new generation of laser systems with “much denser capability or greater power lasers in smaller packages and operating at much higher altitudes.” He states: ”We do believe we are very close … within a few years of having a prototype that will actually operate out of an unattended air vehicle at very high altitudes. We basically have a horse race going on between several different technologies and all of them are very promising.” He goes on to state that he thinks that the DoD will have a robust solid state anti-ballistic missile laser on a high altitude UAV within the decade. Pretty exciting stuff. (You can read the entire Aviationweek piece linked below)
So it would seem that Boeing’s giant YABL-1, with its massive chemical laser system packed inside, may be an antiquated relic at a very young age. Another sign of the incredibly fast-moving and ever-changing sector of technology for which its unique mission relies. In many ways we may come to view the YABL-1 the same as the giant, clumsy personal computers of the late 1970′s and early 1980′s, with the leap to the ”Ipad generation” right around the corner. Installing solid state lasers aboard a high-flying UAV (or even a blimp for that matter) would really be an ideal weapon system. Not only able to identify and destroy ballistic missiles at great distances but also possibly aircraft and anything else that gives off a heat signature or a radar return. Further, if the aircraft is already that high up in the sky loitering, than it may be able to provide additional functionality like providing radar surveillance, or a beyond line of sight relay. Thus turning a highly specialized one trick pony asset into a multirole force multiplier for everyone within the battle space.
It would seem that the road to weaponized lasers is a long one paved in cash. But, at least it would seem that after 30 years we may be close to arriving at our ”speed of light” destination. George Lucas’s Star Wars series took some 25+ years to finish, maybe the DoD’s version will take equally as long…