Defense AcquisitionsDOD Efforts to Develop Laser Weapons for Theater Defense Gao ID: NSIAD-99-50 March 31, 1999
The Pentagon is developing two laser weapons--the Airborne Laser and the Space-Based Laser--which it intends to use to destroy enemy ballistic missiles. In a joint effort with Israel, the Defense Department is also developing a ground-based laser weapon, the Tactical High Energy Laser, which Israel plans to use to defend its northern cities against short-range rockets. The three laser weapon programs are in varying stages of development, ranging from conceptual design studies to integration and testing of system components. Laser experts agree that all three programs face significant technical challenges. The Airborne Laser Program has addressed some technical challenges, such as completing the collection of non-optical atmospheric turbulence data from the Korean and Middle East theaters. However, although the Air Force argues that the design specification established for atmospheric turbulence is generally accurate, DOD has yet to reach a final position on this issue. The technical complexity of the Airborne Laser Program has caused some laser experts to conclude that the laser's planned flight test schedule is compressed and too dependent on the assumption that tests will be successful and therefore does not allow enough time or resources to cope with potential test failures. GAO believes that the Air Force should reconsider its plan to order a second Airborne Laser Program aircraft before flight tests show that the system can shoot down enemy ballistic missiles. Management of the Space-Based Laser Program has characterized the program's demonstrators as the most complex spacecraft that the United States has ever attempted to build. If DOD ultimately decides to continue the program, the size and weight limitations dictated by current and future launch capabilities will force the program to push the state of the art in such areas as laser efficiency, laser power, and deployable optics. The Tactical High Energy Laser's components have been produced, but initial testing of the laser has found problems with the operation of the chemical flow control valves and with the low-power laser to be used in tracking the short-range rockets the system is designed to shoot down.
GAO noted that: (1) DOD is developing two laser weapons--the Airborne Laser (ABL) and the Space-Based Laser (SBL)--which U.S. forces intend to use to destroy enemy ballistic missiles; (2) in a joint effort with Israel, DOD is developing a ground-based laser weapon, the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL), which Israel will use to defend its northern cities against short-range rockets; (3) ABL is funded and managed by the Air Force, SBL is jointly funded by the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and the Air Force, and THEL is funded jointly with Israel and managed by the Army; (4) ABL, SBL, and THEL are in varying stages of development ranging from conceptual design studies to integration and testing of system components; (5) the ABL program is in the program definition and risk reduction acquisition phase and is scheduled for full operational capability in 2009, with a total of seven ABLs; (6) this schedule reflects a 1-year delay from the original schedule; (7) the Air Force estimates the life-cycle cost of the ABL to be about $11 billion; (8) the SBL program is about a year into a $30-million study phase to define concepts for the design, development, and deployment of a proof of concept demonstrator; (9) DOD estimates that it will cost about $3 billion to develop and deploy the demonstrator; (10) the future of the SBL program is unknown, pending the outcome of a DOD assessment of the program; (11) the $131.5-million THEL Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program is about 34 months into a 38-month program; (12) system components have been built, but system testing has been delayed from December 1998 to July 1999 due to administrative and technical problems; (13) laser experts agree that the ABL, SBL, and THEL face significant technical challenges; (14) the technical complexity of the ABL program has caused laser experts to conclude that the ABL planned flight test schedule is compressed and too dependent on the assumption that tests will be successful and therefore does not allow enough time and resources to deal with potential test failures and to prove the ABL concept; (15) if DOD ultimately decides to continue the SBL program, the size and weight limitations dictated by current and future launch capabilities will force the program to push the state of the art in laser efficiency, laser power, and deployable optics; and (16) initial testing of THEL's laser has identified problems with the operation of chemical flow control valves and with the low-power laser that is to be used in tracking short-range rockets the system is being designed to defeat.Recommendations
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