Aviation Week's Graham Warwick is reporting that Boeing is now briefing U.S. defense officials on the initial results of internally funded studies into possibly expanding the role of the 747-based Airborne Laser (ABL). Such moves come as Boeing is again trying to build a stronger case for continued funding of the high-profile program (and when I say high-profile, I mean it came up a few times in the race for the White House last year.)
The crucial demonstration of the megawatt-class laser’s ability to shoot down a ballistic missile is planned for later this year, but with the costly, out-year program under threat Boeing wants to prove the ABL could be used for missions beyond boost-phase intercept, shooting down aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and cruise missiles. Indeed, homeland defense is one potential role. “The basic results are out and we are beginning to share them, to see if they are interested,” says program manager Michael Rinn. Studies focus on potential changes to the current platform to perform additional missions.
“We are not talking major changes,” he adds.
That reminds me of a response Lockheed Martin gave me last month when they were briefing reporters over their own missile defense system elements. I wanted to know if officials there, too, were looking at unique, unscripted applications for their related technology. John Holly, Lockheed vice president of Huntsville Operations, seemed to indicate otherwise.
“Our missile defense programs are specifically tailored to meet the requirements established by our government customers," Holly told me. "While many of the technologies are applicable in other areas, I believe we will continue to follow our customers’ lead and will respond to their requirements with the intellectual talent and technologies appropriate to each task.”
Ironically, Lockheed can point to the Aegis Ballistic Missile defense System's successful shoot-down of an ailing U.S. satellite, and in fact it does so quite often to promote the Aegis BMD program. But the massive defense contractor is stressing that its offerings are what was asked for, and thus, required. "With proven hit-to-kill technologies and demonstrated reliability, Lockheed Martin has firmly-positioned each phase of missile defense — boost, midcourse and terminal — to support the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) layered Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) System and allied nations' requirements in 2009 and beyond," the company said Jan. 7.
I'm sure Boeing would argue the same thing, but with ABL it seems to be willing to push the argument a little further to try to keep ABL alive. Necessity is the mother of invention, as Plato said.