back to article Pentagon's raygun-packing 747 to visit DC

The Airborne Laser, the US Missile Defence programme's raygun-equipped jumbo jet, is to visit Washington tonight in an attempt to drum up support on Capitol Hill. Airborne Laser aircraft The Airborne Laser aircraft, intended to explode ICBMs shortly after liftoff. The Missile Defence Agency says (pdf) the flying energy- …


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  1. Nev Silver badge

    Plot from a SciFi Novel

    Is it me or does this seem like Philp K. Dick's "The Zap Gun" ?

  2. Martin

    rediculous. . .

    Ok, someone explain to me how this will work in practice. Since it needs to be shot down in the first few minutes, we would need to assume this thing will actually be in the air. Now, its a good bet that Kim Jong Il isn't going to ring up the Whitehouse and let them know he is going to fire off a missile, should he REALLY want it to be effective. So, is this plane going to just circle around North Korea and Iran, forever in the air? Unlikely. Or do they plan a fleet of them, rotating through service for continue coverage? Sounds expensive. Or did they not think that far ahead? Sounds like the most probable . . .

    Glad my tax dollars didn't go towards this monstrosity.

  3. Tim Spence

    Don't understand...

    ...if this is to be used to shoot down an ICBM in the "vulnerable" first few minutes after launch, how is any plane (let alone a big heavy 747) going to get to close to the launch site within just a few minutes?

    If a missile is launched from somewhere as close to the US as even Cuba, by the time it's been detected by defence mechanisms and the 747 has even got airborne, the missile will nearly be on it's target already!

    If the missile is launched from afar (which you'd expect from an *intercontinental* ballistic missile), the 747 would still be thousands of miles away and only just taken off by the time the "vulnerable" first few minutes after launch have happened.

    Anyone have any idea how it's supposed to work?

  4. JP

    All very well...

    but surely not very realistic or practical? Scrambling a Jumbo from a friendly airbase during the first couple of minutes of a ICBM launch from continental Asia? It'll take that long to get the 747 airborne! Also, 747s aren't know for their speed or manouverbility. Any sort of air cover would be able to shoot it down!

    Load of tosh, and a waste of money.

  5. Dillon Pyron

    And that's called?

    Oink oink.

    The problem with boost phase intercepts is that you have to see the missile. Now I know that it's easy enough to keep planes in the air 24x7, but how many and where?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In the news today

    Given the general intelligence of those in charge of the worlds "Greatest Nation", someone showed great wisdom in NOT having the laser installed for the visit. Just picture the scene:

    The fire control console, some boffins showing it off, and a congressman leans over and says "What does that button do?" pointing, his finger mere inches from the button marked "FIRE". Someone bumps into him, and he's nudged forwards.

    Next day, world headlines: "Terrorists burn down Washington." - Source: From whats left of the Whitehouse.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Boost phase?

    Er, isn't that the bit at the beginning when it's on the way up? Why would you want a weapon system that's only really good for shooting down your own missiles? Remember, high power laser weapon + surrounding atmosphere = short range.

    I'd like to think that any potential ICBM equipped enemies would go to the trouble of removing any huge, bleedin' obvious, really easy to shoot down, laser equipped 747s from their local airspace *before* thumping the red button.

    Presumably it's painted grey to avoid the obvious "white elephant" gags.


  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Popcorn anyone?

    If they don't get the desired support, I'm sure they'll just grab Val Kilmer, and end up using the 'lazer' to fill Nancy Pelosi's house with popcorn...

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Defence against Dr. E

    Brilliant, now when Dr Evil plans to blackmail the world with an ICBM all the Yanks need to do is:

    1. Locate the big human head shaped mountain.

    2. Time how long it will take to get there.

    3. Launch the rather large and possibley slow Jet at "Time's up" minus Journey time

    4. Pray the thing actually works

    5. Blow up Iraq (Oops, sorry, I mean the ICBM).

    I get the feeling that either a) they watch too many movies and assume they will get the warning. b) watch too many movies and assume their intelligence is worth more than chocolate fireguards. or (possible I watch too many movies) c) It's a big cover up for something much more stupid.

  10. The Mighty Spang

    Double Bummer

    So world war 3 is gonna start on a cloudy day now?

  11. Jan Buys

    Really, I can't

    I really really fail to see how this will ever work.

  12. Mad Mike


    Placing the laser on an aircraft fulfills two objectives. The first is the size and power etc. requirements. It should you can fire, control etc.etc. the weapon from a relatively small platform. Secondly, it is possible to use an aircraft for this sort of mission. They obviously wouldn't fly them round, say, North Korea all the time, but could during times of increased tension.

    However, the real and obvious answer is to base them in orbit just like Ronald Reagan was proposing. This would require something small, with good power and range and good targeting. All something this plane will prove.


    The COIL laser in the aircraft is actually very powerful with a good range.

  13. Matthew Glubb

    ICBM Bling Anyone?

    I predict the rapid makeovers of all axis of evil ICBMs to have trendy mirrored exterior surfaces!

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    lets just suppose

    Whilst I agree with the doomsayers above. Is it not a case of developing the technology in a revlatively cheap and freely available platform and proving it locally before strapping it to several orbitting satellites. The thinking being if they can detect i.e. see a ICBM launch using early warning birds they can equally equip those early warning birds successors with the ability to dispatch the threat there and then.

    Or have I just been watching to much Sci-fis again. Bring on the Death Star.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ICBMs ?

    Now call me what you like,

    but this baby would be much better at shooting down any aircraft it wanted. point that thing at the pilot and good by site.

    Maybe UAVs are on the way for a reason.

  16. Josh

    You forget...

    I don't think this is meant to be scrambled per se. The US has a lot of intelligence tracking the locations of missiles and launchers around the world. Remember the big raucous when we found out Kim Jong was setting up long range missiles for test launch? He didn't warn us before we knew, we saw them setting the things up. By the time they get the missile ready for launch, we should have the plane already within lethal range.

    This is assuming, of course, that we're really on the ball, and that past discoveries of 'possible impending missile launches' haven't been operational flukes.

    They really need to get this thing down to a smaller size, and launch about 24 of them into orbit...then it may actually be a deterrant to launches (e.g.:why waste the missile?)

  17. Spider

    boom shake the room...

    most of the posts here are dead right, laser = line of sight, short range in atmosphere and so on...

    but consider, this is a test bed. if proven though why not bung the big bug zapper in orbit, maybe a satellite? permanently on station, manouverable, and less atmosphere to shoot through. half a dozen should cover the main players...

    and if the computers go down on the ISS again a good way of preventing it landing on one big chunk...

  18. Antony Curtis

    The View from the Conservative Knoll

    What you have to remember is that this is an idea supported by many Anti-Evolutionists and Flat-Earth supporters. In a Flat-Earth scenario, the 747 just has to be in the air and it will be able to shoot down any missile in boost phase by line of sight.

    Isn't that simple?

    Now don't try to convince these people that the world is a oblique spheroid and that the planet may get in the way of their line of sight or they may accuse you of being a Darwin-loving Jesus-hating terrorist.

  19. Brad Murray

    Loitering around

    I think the idea is that launch detection is performed by aircraft like this anyway, so strapping a laser on one that can kill (and energy levels needed for a kill on a pressurised cylinder of liquid oxygen and other volatiles are fairly low) at the same range as the detection kit works is not a bad bet.

    I suspect the viability of the project is somewhere between the optimism of the designers and the pessimism of the sceptical though largely uninformed commenters here.

  20. Stuart Van Onselen


    So they may just be using the 747 as a test-bed before (trying to) mount this on a satellite.

    But that still leaves a lot of issues:

    Will they be able to miniaturise it enough to fit onto a satellite small enough to be lifted by current launch platforms?

    How long will these satellites be viable? Are the chemicals involved volatile enough that they're going to have to keep launching expensive replacements?

    How many satellites are they going to need for global coverage? These things are probably going to have to sit in LEO, as geostationary orbits may be too high up. But in LEO, you may need dozens of these things in orbit at once to cover everywhere, because satellites can't easily be re-positioned like airplanes. Combine the large number with the possibility of frequent replacement, and you're looking at a cost that may bankrupt even the mighty USA.

    What about international treaties? Would these new satellites be used by Russia and China as an excuse to either (a) launch their own space weapons, or (b) try out their new satellite-killers?

    These are all problems that date back to the original Star Wars, and I'm not aware of any solutions having been discovered since then.

  21. Andy Bright

    Before I launch a wave of cynicism

    in the direction of this mentally unstable project, a sudden thought occurred to me - thanks to one of the above comments.

    "Why would you want a weapon system that's only really good for shooting down your own missiles?"

    Thankfully Ronald Reagan is no longer at the controls of our nukes, but may I remind everyone who is.. and worse, who gets to push the "button" if something unfortunate were to happen (like a more dangerous pretzel experience than the one that only nearly killed him).

    So I believe the answer to that question is pretty obvious.. if you had George Bush in charge of your nukes, wouldn't you want a weapon that was only good for shooting down your own missiles too?

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How many launch locations are there anyway?

    So let's assume that this thing is as nifty as is expensive. The problem is that you have a small time window to shoot the missiles down, and you have to be relatively close to the launch, in the plane, at altitude, systems go.

    If you had three of these in South Korea, and three sets of aircrews, you could conceivably have them up 24/7, looking at North Korea, waiting for something to happen. Station three more in Turkey to deal with Iran, let's say.

    I don't know how feasible that is, but that doesn't seem too logistically taxing.

    If you could get one onto a UAV / blimp (maybe) of some sort, or a carrier launched version, you're way ahead of the game.

  23. David Levy

    Aluminium Tubes

    I hear a lot of dissent about the idea of this plane. But they've been prevented from telling us about it's top secret feature. Remember the damning aluminium tubes which were a threat to international security? Well, this plane is absolutely full of them - in fact there's been little room for much else in there apart from them.

    So I sleep soundly in my bed knowing that my safety is protected by the modern marvels of Aluminium tubes.

    Seriously - I think the original comment had it best: how is the plane going to get into a position to fire this thing? The only time I could foresee it being useful is a slow increase in tensions between nuclear countries and this thing flying 24/7. But with the plane flying 24/7, isn't it a bit of a target to pre-emptively attack before launching a nuclear strike? It's not like it's got an invlunerability shield or a cloaking device (or even stealth for that matter).

  24. matt

    Vanishing with a poof.

    Maybe it's not just designed to hit ICBMs.

    Imagine firing this puppy from a distance at for example, a ruthless despot as he addresses his subjects.

    As for Osama, he'd better start wearing some very reflective clothing...

  25. call me scruffy


    The flight ceiling of a normal 747 is 45,000 feet, at that height you can see for a couple of hundred miles in each direction... so it wouldn't take many of these to patrol hot spots. But it could still get shot down, and it wouldn't be much use against a sub-based missile. All the same isn't this old news? I thought the americans had been playing with big plane mounted lasers twenty years ago. Putting a COIL in orbit isn't the best of option since they need huge amounts of cooling.

    It's just eye candy, it's a big expensive hight tech piece of kit that's designed to make people say "wow" and believe that they are being protected. History is littered with such useless idols, it's just the moddern equivelent of the cure-all medicines the victorians bought, and so on.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Project Name?

    This ultra high-tech Project needs a suitable name. How about

    Security of North America by Coil, or SNACOIL for short!

  27. Graham Bartlett

    ICBM? no - Scud? yes

    For an ICBM, this is obviously a dead loss, but that's not what it's for. The problem all militaries have is that ground-to-ground missiles are relatively cheap (the Palestinians roll their own for next-to-nothing) and are currently difficult to stop. Patriot missiles are significantly less than perfect. Gatling-gun systems on warships are reasonably good, but they rely on the missile heading straight for you so you can pump out a truly vast quantity of lead in its path - they won't work for a missile going elsewhere, and they have the disadvantage on land that there's a whole ton of lead that has to land somewhere (remember that missile defences are usually behind your troops). The idea of this laser is a similar principle to AWACS - one eye-in-the-sky (protected by fighters) covering a large surface area.

  28. David Compton

    Real Genius, indeed

    Now, stick one of these on the end of a Mach 10 SCRAMJET and things get interesting.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    how it works

    I think the principal of use is this:

    When a nation reaches a certain level of threat then the DEFCON level is increase/decreased (I forget which) and at a certain level all their 'birds' are launched and mobile as are defence systems placed on high alert. the ABL is then sent to areas near suspected launch sites (within allied or international airspace of course!) and awaits a target, if I'm right she can also take in flight refueling for an extend/protracted time frame.

    THEN if a launch is detected, within the boost phase the ABL can target and eliminate as required.

  30. Demian Phillips

    Took em long enough (to show us).

    I know a guy who was working on this (installing the cooling systems) back in the early 90's.

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