MDA canceled the YAL-1 747-400F-based Airborne Laser testbed after making its final flight last year. The massive chemical laser was used to demonstrate beam control, optics and the ability to use directed energy to shoot down a ballistic missile target.
But it proved too complex a system to build, maintain and field.
“It was a little bit of a bittersweet experience,” Matlock said of the program, which was led by Boeing. But lessons from the experience are feeding into the agency’s plans for UAV-borne lasers.
ABL featured a bulbous nose that carried the optics necessary to focus and direct the chemical laser; this presented aerodynamic challenges for the aircraft. The goal with an unmanned aircraft option is to fly high — 60,000 ft. or higher — to get above the distortion presented by clouds in the atmosphere (eliminating some of the complex beam-control parts).
This should allow for simpler optics and reduced operating speed, Matlock said.
MDA is still chasing solid-state lasers, fiber lasers and hybrid lasers, he says, in an effort to avoid using caustic chemicals for the kill mechanism.
The agency is working with experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory, Mass.; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Calif.; and the Defense Research Projects Agency to develop payloads. But the power and weight requirements of such a system are highly demanding, especially when coupled with an unmanned aircraft designed for long dwell times.
“Getting them from laboratory units to something that we can fly will take some time,” Matlock says.