A flying Boeing 747 jumbo jet equipped with a massive laser gun shot down a Scud-like missile over the Pacific late Thursday night, marking what analysts said was a major milestone in the development of the nation's missile defense system.
The test shoot-down at 8:44 p.m. over a military test range near Point Mugu is expected to renew debate over spending billions of dollars for a system that is years behind schedule and derided by some as irrelevant in today's conflicts.
The test, which the Pentagon described as a success, could also help resuscitate an important military program for Southern California, where much of the high-tech system has been developed and tested.
"Proving this technology is game-changing," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va. "The program's funding has been hanging on by a thread. A successful shoot-down of a ballistic missile will demonstrate to Capitol Hill that the airborne laser has potential."
In Thursday's test, a chemical laser affixed to the 747's rotating nose turret shot a super-heated, basketball-size beam at a missile traveling 4,000 mph. The aircraft used onboard sensors to track the missile, which was launched from an ocean platform.
It took just a few seconds for the beam to create a stress fracture in the missile, causing it to split into pieces, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said. Pentagon officials declined to say how far the aircraft was from the missile, saying the information was a military secret. But analysts have said the distance may have been about 100 miles.
Less than an hour later, the aircraft was able to shoot a laser at a second missile that was launched from San Nicolas Island. The heavily modified 747, which flew out of Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, did not have to refuel or reload the chemicals needed to fire the second shot.
With the second shot, the test confirmed the possibility of attacking "multiple targets at the speed of light, at a range of hundreds of kilometers, and at a low cost per intercept attempt compared to current technologies," the Missile Defense Agency said Friday.
The Pentagon agency also said the aircraft, dubbed Airborne Laser Testbed, had "destroyed" a missile Feb. 3, but it did not release the information until Thursday night.
Boeing Co. of Chicago was the prime contractor for the airborne laser program and provided the aircraft and the battle management system and oversaw the test.
Northrop Grumman Corp. engineers in Redondo Beach developed the laser while Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., designed the beam and fire control system. Modification and testing of the aircraft have taken place at Edwards Air Force Base, home to many aviation firsts. The program employs about 400 people in California at Edwards Air Force Base, Redondo Beach and Sunnyvale.
It has taken nearly 15 years and at least $4 billion to develop the airborne laser. Pentagon planners initially envisioned using the aircraft to shoot down ballistic missiles near the launchpads. It was part of a multibillion-dollar defense system that would shield the U.S. from missile attacks.
But because of cost overruns and delays -- plans called for the laser to be operational in 2002 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates slashed its budget last year. In a congressional hearing in May, Gates said that even if the laser was successful, its operational distance, which is classified, was not far enough to be considered useful in a conflict.
"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," Gates said.
President Obama has not included money for the program in his new budget proposal, but the Pentagon has requested $99 million to continue conducting "directed energy" research.
Thursday's shoot-down could sway Congress to take another look, analyst Thompson said. "Up until now, the airborne laser's success has been theoretical," he said. "After more than a decade of waiting, Boeing and its partners have demonstrated that intercepting and destroying a missile with an airborne laser is possible. It could erase all doubts in legislators' minds and reinstitute the funding."