ABL Flies, but Government Agency Warns Sky Is Not Clear

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AN AIRCRAFT DESIGNED to carry a laser that would shoot down ballistic missiles shortly after their launch made its inaugural test-flight July 18. The flight came just days after the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that certain technology key to building the laser has not yet been sufficiently developed and that the program lacks clear criteria for determining when the aircraft will be ready for production and use.

The Airborne Laser (ABL) aircraft, a modified Boeing 747, took off from a Kansas air base and flew for about 90 minutes in its first flight, which was aimed at testing the plane's airworthiness after several modifications, including the installation of a 12,000-pound rotating turret in its nose. Because the laser is not yet fully developed and has not been installed, the aircraft was loaded with metal bearings to help stabilize it.

Since the July 18 flight, the aircraft has flown six additional times. An Air Force spokesperson reported that the flights have gone well, although program officials removed a pod on top of the plane because they believed it was causing air turbulence problems. The pod is designed to house a laser that will track missile targets.

There is no exact schedule for how many more flights will be conducted this year. "We will do as many as necessary to verify satisfactory performance of the aircraft," the Air Force spokesperson explained.

Current plans, however, call for the Air Force to begin installing the laser next year. During that process, the aircraft will be grounded.

The first ABL attempt to intercept a ballistic missile in flight is scheduled for late 2004, and an official deployment date is set for 2010, although the Pentagon wants two or three ABL aircraft ready for emergency use between 2006 and 2008. When the Air Force initiated the program in 1996, it originally estimated that it would start to deploy ABL aircraft by 2006.

GAO Critiques ABL

In a July 12 report on the ABL program, GAO charged that the Air Force had underestimated the difficulty of the project, leading to ill-informed estimates about how long it would take to develop the system and what it would cost. GAO is a nonpartisan body tasked with carrying out studies and investigations requested by members of Congress.

To date, $1.7 billion has been spent on ABL. The Air Force initially projected that ABL development would total $2.5 billion, but last year that estimate jumped to $3. …