Yes, it sounds completely crazy: A 747 jumbo-jet, embedded with a powerful laser, that can shoot missiles right out of the sky. But for sixteen long years, the U.S. military tried to turn that idea - called the Airborne Laser Test Bed - into a reality.
Now, after myriad ups and downs, the Airborne Laser (ABL) has finally been put out of its misery. Last week, the Missile Defense Agency announced that the ABL completed its final test flight.
The jet will now be dispatched to a locale from which planes don't typically return: The Air Force's Maintenance and Regeneration Group, also known as "The Boneyard."
There, the ABL will join more than 4,200 other outdated or useless vessels. The sorry vessels in this plane purgatory are often picked to pieces, their various hardwares used for spare parts. Others are kept intact, waiting to be used in a museum exhibit or on a movie set.
Though the ABL has been resurrected before, this might very well be the jet's final death knell. The Pentagon's trimmed down, 2013 budget, released last week, didn't just whittle down outlandish sci-fi projects. Instead, top brass are thinning personnel ranks and procuring fewer new weapons. Those kinds of substantial cuts suggest that the era of wasteful, fanciful defense spending has come to an end. It's only fitting that the ABL (along with the Missile Defense Agency's giant golf ball radar) would meet their end at the same time.
First conceived by the Air Force in 1996, and later transferred to the Missile Defense Agency, the ABL was supposed to be "America's First Light Saber."
Unfortunately, such an outlandish scheme was tough to pull off. First of all, the toxic chemical concoction required to power the laser was heavy - which explains why it required a cavernous 747 for transport. Plus, even after years of research, the laser was only strong enough to zap missiles within a relatively limited range (downing an Iranian missile, for example, would require orbiting inside Iran's own borders). Plus, the accuracy of the laser's optical system was marred by atmospheric conditions.
Technical hurdles like those made the ABL's costs increasingly prohibitive. By 2009, the jet was $4 billion over-budget (despite running a whopping tab of around half-a-billion per year) and eight years behind schedule. Not to mention that the ABL, even if it worked, was expected to cost $92,000 an hour during flights.
"We can no longer continue to do everything and explore every potential technology," Rep. Ellen Tauscher, now the Pentagon's top arms-control official, said at the time. "Missile defense cannot be like some second marriages - the triumph of hope over experience."
That same year, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed. He cancelled the development of a second Airborne Laser, noting that he didn't "know anybody at the Department of Defense who thinks that this program should, or would, ever be operationally deployed."
But in 2010, the ABL seemed poised for a comeback: In February, the jet successfully zapped a "threat representative" missile out of the sky from 50 miles away, garnering the program a $40 million boost in funding for continued testing.
Much to the disappointment of Americans antsy for their ray-gun, two consecutive botched tests later in 2010 seem to have sealed the ABL's fate. The project's funding ran out in 2010, and it'll now be relegated to "longterm storage."
Sixteen years and billions of dollars - all so that a tricked-out 747 could collect dust? Maybe not quite. The ABL's defenders do credit it with helping to work out kinks in missile defense logistics, with former Pentagon technology chief Zach Lemnios anticipating that when America is ready to deploy a light-saber, it'll be "on much, much smaller platforms than a 747."
Photo: Missile Defense Agency