1 November 2011

Coming not so soon to a theater near you: Laser weapons for missile defense

Subrata Ghoshroy

Subrata Ghoshroy is a research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Program in Science, Technology, and...

Mounted in an adapted Boeing 747, the Airborne Laser (ABL) was to be a dream antimissile weapon, acquiring the trajectory of a Scud or other theater-range ballistic missile, pointing a high-power laser beam precisely at a certain area of the fast-moving target, and holding it there until the missile surface heated and ruptured. But the ABL fell eight years behind schedule and went $4 billion over budget before the program was finally axed in 2010. A classic defense boondoggle, the ABL is also a frightening example of how committed military officials, scientists, and defense contractors can persuade Congress to keep a defense program alive against, seemingly, all reason, the author writes. An ABL postmortem should be carried out by truly independent scientists and engineers. Beyond determining just what the ABL project did and didn’t accomplish, however, the US government needs to address the chronic lack of transparency and accountability in defense science and technology programs exemplified by the ABL fiasco. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy should be the agency responsible for coordinating efforts to increase scrutiny of such programs, particularly those at the far technical edge of missile defense research.