A Boeing 747 jumbo jet outfitted with a massive laser gun failed to knock out a dummy missile over the Pacific Ocean, marking the second consecutive setback for a key missile defense program that is years behind schedule and plagued with cost overruns.
The heavily modified 747, dubbed Airborne Laser Test Bed, was unable to fire the laser gun because its onboard sensors could not accurately track the missile, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said. It was the second time in as many months in which the laser failed to hit the target.
The latest glitch came at a crucial time for the program, which has been under intense scrutiny from Congress looking to cut Pentagon spending on new weapons. The Pentagon quietly conducted the test late Wednesday night over a military test range near Point Mugu.
"In this budget environment, any setback to a controversial weapon system has the potential to be fatal," said Loren Thompson, a military policy analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va. The airborne laser "is a revolutionary weapon system … but the government is out of money and it has taken an awful long time to develop."
It has taken nearly 15 years and at least $4 billion to develop the airborne laser, which has been designed and tested in Southern California.
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 250 people, most of them in California at Edwards, Redondo Beach and Sunnyvale. It once had more than 1,000.
Boeing Co., based in Chicago but with large presence in Huntington Beach and Seal Beach, is the prime contractor for the airborne laser program. Boeing provided the aircraft and the battle management system and oversaw the test.
The jumbo jet flies out of Edwards with a chemical laser affixed to its rotating nose turret that shoots a superheated, basketball-size beam. It's designed to burn a stress fracture in the missile, causing it to explode over the ocean.
In February, the airborne laser was heralded by the Pentagon after it shot down a Scud-like missile launched from an ocean platform.
Riki Ellison, founder and chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said the successful shoot-down in February was estimated to be at a distance of around 62 miles. That distance was expected to double in the next tests.
But in the ensuing months the program was plagued by a series of technical problems that delayed a follow-up missile test until early last month. In that test, a software glitch caused the laser to miss the desired mark on the target missile.
Pentagon planners envisioned using the aircraft to blast apart ballistic missiles near their launch pads. It was part of a multibillion-dollar defense system that would shield the U.S. from missile attacks. They planned on buying a fleet of the laser-equipped jumbo jets.
But last year Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates cut that to one. He also 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 at a congressional conference in May.
Even though the airborne laser was not successful in the recent attempted shoot-downs, it is still seen as "precious technology" that no other country possesses, Ellison said.
"This is a complex system that's expected to have some issues," he said. "I don't think these hang-ups are all that pivotal."