back to article Nuke-nobbling US laser jumbo fires test beams

America's famous nuke-toasting aerial ray cannon jumbo jet has at last fired its first energy beams in ground testing, according to prime contractor Boeing. The Airborne Laser (ABL) system is now complete, and testing will progress to a live intercept against a ballistic missile in 2009. Boeing's concept of an ABL in action …


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  1. Andrew

    Cancer Anyone?

    Oh yay, more radiation to go into the atmosphere and give people cancer.

    No doubt they'll blame that on smoking too.

  2. Matt Bryant Silver badge

    Plus a carrier fleet per jumbo?

    "....Furthermore, in order to hit missiles in their vulnerable boost phase, the planes would need to fly within a few hundred km of the launch sites...." Even the old MiGs flown by the North Koreans would own a jumbo! Which means the jumbos would also need a large escort of fighters, with fighter control. Even an F-22 screen flying out of Japan would need a squadron of refueling planes, plus at least one AWACS to provide airborne control, and all this on-station for extended periods. More likely as not the US government would give the escort job to the US Navy's carriers, with a carrier also providing the forward air control. But then I suspect the Navy would much rather use their own ship-mounted lasers and anti-sat missiles rather than provide cover for a bit of Air Force glory-hunting. And the US Navy ships could loiter on-station for weeks off North Korea rather than the mere hours of the Air Force option.

    No, I think the jumbo option is for areas where we have airfields and where the Navy might have problems deploying, such as the Persian Gulf, where the confines make the US Navy more than a bit nervous despite all their bluster. If the sky fry jumbos ever leave ground I expect them to be deployed to Saudi and possiby Iraq, and maybe Continental Europe. So, there you go - the sky fry jumbos are really petrol-state guardians.

  3. Charlie

    Curtis LeMay would be proud

    Huge fleets of giant jet aircraft flying racetracks on the edge of international airspace 24 hours a day waiting for the attack order.

    No wonder Boeing are bullish. It gives the 747 assembly line a new lease of life in the Airbus 380 era and it's a meaty military contract that will last indefinitely.

    I think that this technology will eventually be overtaken by clouds of stealthy one-shot drones. Cheaper, easier to maintain and largely risk free.

  4. OldDogNewWalk
    Thumb Up

    You gotta love it!!


    "First ray-play day for ICBM sky fry guys"


    Give the subbie double bubble for this line.

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Juicy Target?

    I'm no expert, and I know there are some spotters frequent this site - but wouldn't a fully laden jumbo like this be an easy target for the enemy forces? Or are they hoping to be fighting an enemy whose ground-to-air defences and aircraft are completely shattered, but who still maintain a nearby ICBM threat? Presumably too you need to field quite a number of these to counter a simultaneous launch.

    If anyone needed proof mankind is descended from primates, you need look no further then our fucking insistence on developing ways of killing each other whilst ignoring the real plight of our planet and fellow man. Intelligent design my ass. We are clearly just an anomaly of nature.

  6. Pete Silver badge

    wrong threat

    Personally, I've always though that the likes of UPS (note: there are other carriers) would be a far more effective delivery system. Crate-up your nuke in a container, slap a load of shielding around it and post it off. When it gets to the port, a nice trucker will off-load it and drive it wherever you pay them to go.

    OK it's not as sexy as a shiny new missile - and not as fast, but the message it sends is just as effective and would be immune to 747's with ray-guns. It would also be a lot cheaper, for those rogue states who are feeling the pinch from the credit crunch.

  7. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)

    Re: You gotta love it!!

    I can't take credit for that one - it's pure 100% organic Page.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    passive defence? I think not.

    People talk about this as if the US is going to passively sit there, relying upon a fleet of laser jumbo's to protect them. This is pure nonsense.

    The purpose of this thing is to allow the american empire to attack anyone with impunity - even if they have a number of ballistic missiles.

    If the US thought there was even the smallest risk that a state might nuke them out of the blue, you can bet your arse they won't just put one of these things nearby and hope that it can intercept anything - they'll be attacking them pre-emptively, with this thing providing cover 'just in case'.

  9. Phil Tanner

    I'm no expert but...

    Wouldn't North Korea^W^W any enemy nation simply stop painting their ICBM's and polish them up to a lovely mirror shine instead to foil this plan? I mean, wouldn't the lasers simply then bounce off & fry some poor yak farmer or camel herder instead of making the satisfying "Kaboom!" at this point?

    Flame icon to signify the fate of poor shepherd

  10. Anonymous Coward

    @ passive defence? I think not.

    Yeah I think you are right. That has the depressing and vaguely sickening ring of truth about it. Suddenly a stupid 'defence' system fraught with problems makes sense when seen as one 'vector' of a larger attack.

    If I were reading about humanity in a sci-fi novel, I'd be bemused by the way so many nations (e.g. a lot of Europe) stood by or even cooperated with the nation whose military technology was outpacing the rest of the planet. I'd probably find the plot a little implausible, and it would have to be a pulp sci-fi novel.

    Alien, cos thats how I feel sometimes when I read about our species.

  11. Riscyrich

    Can they strap one to the top of a shark ?

    Freaking sharks with freaking lasers - nuff said....

  12. heystoopid
    Paris Hilton

    Oh well

    Oh well , this wiki tells us why it is doomed to fail miserably !

    Need one say any more ?

  13. Charles

    Phil Tanner

    Even mirrors have their limits, as there are no such things as perfect mirrors. Heat something hot enough quickly enough and the reflective material will distort and become useless. From there, it's just another target. And aerial escorts for the missile can be met with planes covering the ABL--and anyone wanting to take on either the USAF or USN CAW better know what they're up against.

    The big criticisms would come from using non-missile means to deliver a payload (ie. smuggled within a container cargo and wrapped with enough insulation--or a high-lead cargo--to block geiger counters). But the US is aware of this avenue, too, which is why they're working on means of scanning container cargo for radioactivity or "dead zones" which would imply a shielded cargo--preferably far from shore. A less-likely scenario (but still to be considered) is a hot-launched missile--any attack on a hot-launched missile would result in its detonation.

  14. Steven Jones


    The cancer threat is more likely to be to the flight and ground crews of these flying tanks of noxious chemicals rather than missiles that have been blown up with them. In any case, in the unlikely event that this actually works, there will be far less radiation emitted by an intercepted nuclear ballistic missile than if the damn thing went off. In the 1950s the major powers were quite happily letting off nuclear explosions in the atmosphere. Those of a certain age will have the evidence in their teeth enamel.

    I suspect that if the world gets into the sorry state where one of these things is used in anger then the worldwide addition of a little bit more radioactivity into the atmosphere with the destruction of such a missile in early flight is going to be the least of our troubles.

  15. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    Who flies these things?

    A quick web search of chemical oxygen iodine lasers suggests they are 20 to 25% efficient. For every kilowatt sent sent vaguely in the direction of the missile, 3 or 4 kilowatts heat the aircraft full of chlorine, iodine, potassium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide.

    Reflective missiles look promising. I found an infrared telescope mirror that reflects 98%.

  16. Martin Silver badge

    @Juicy Target

    >Or are they hoping to be fighting an enemy whose ground-to-air defences and

    >aircraft are completely shattered, but who still maintain a nearby ICBM threat?

    Yes it assumes they have a permanent escort of interceptors and some ground attack aircraft have knocked out all the SAM sites around the ICBM but decided not to hit the ICBM itself.

    Presumably there is a similair navy project where a remote control kamikaze drone crashes into the side of a ship and a small robot ejects, climbs down the hull and attaches a limpet mine under the water.

  17. Dave

    wrong threat, stupid response

    Boeing pork-barrel scoffing - ooh! just as all their workers have gone on strike at the pathetic 34 000 bucks per year on which they are forced to scrape through (serious comment: 34 000 bucks is not that great)

  18. Dave


    Actually, a mirror finish may well work. RADAR targetting is good enough to give you a general direction to point the turret, but a low-power laser is required for accurate enough targetting for the laser cannon. As long as it is shiny enough to deflect the tagetting beam you should be okay.

    Similarly, those who were talking about retro-flective mirrors: these don't need to last forever, merely long enough for the cannon beam to be returned to the aircraft. Lets see the Jumbo fire a second shot after even one-tenth of the original beam has come straight back at the attacking aircraft.

  19. Phil Tanner
    Black Helicopters


    I had presumed that there was some form of targeting system on board the aircraft (like the Apache's canon) rather than it just facing forward along the plane's axis (like the A10's)... I'd also presumed that it was some form of revolving reflector like a cheap disco decoration...

    A lot of presumptions, I know, but how else can they change the destination of the beam? And if they can find a material to reflect the beam for the full length of the firing at point blank range, then surely a coating could be found to deflect the remainder of the beam after several kilometres of atmosphere has taken it's toll upon it?

    Helicopter icon coz it'll be the last you'll see of them - soon they'll all be shiny :D

  20. Anonymous Coward


    Great technology. Completely unusable, for all the reasons previously listed by others.

    So - I ask myself - why do they bother.....

    And the answer has just come to me......

    BECAUSE they aren't going to use it against ICBMs - that's just a cover - they are going to use it against satellites. If it works over a few hundred km through the atmosphere, then it is certainly going to work pointing upwards into space. May well explain the swiveling nose.

    Am i right or am i right?

  21. Ted Treen

    @I'm no expert

    Neither am I, but I don't think polishing said missiles is necessary:-

    Taking into account the US forces' legendary target identification skills and pinpoint accuracy (as experienced by HM forces during a multitude of conflicts), anything & everything within 20 or 30 miles of these missiles will probably be black & crispy anyway - whilst missile remains pristine...

    Mine's the orange one, with "Gitmo Bay" on the bavk...

  22. Graham Jordan


    Starfish was about detonating a nuke in the atmosphere, shooting down a ICBM just toasts the delivery vechile, it doesn't start the chain reaction.

    I remember reading a while back a way around this is simply to spin the missle on take off? If the laser can't find a fixed point then its effectivly useless?

    On another note its times like these Bill Hicks can be remembered. Humans are indeed a virus with shoes Bill...

  23. Pete Silver badge

    @Dave (@Charles)

    > but a low-power laser is required for accurate enough targetting for the laser cannon.

    Errm. I thought the point of making this a _boost_phase_ weapon was that you have a nice, easy infrared target during the 3 minute-or-less time that the rocket engine's firing. After that, aiming becomes a much more difficult proposition.

  24. Anonymous Coward


    For those who talk about the problems of defending a big 747, don't forget we already have a remarkably similar problem anyway. The world's modern air forces are perfectly used to protecting both tanker fleets and awacs aircraft - both of which are effectively defenceless civilian aircraft conversions. Also both of them routinely have to fly as close or closer to enemy territory as this laser in the sky. This laser will just become yet another "High Value Asset" (HVA) that the fighter jocks have to protect.

    I always have to laugh when someone recommends shining up your missile as a defence against lasers. No matter how shiny the material is, you will still get significant radiative transfer onto the surface. Any meagre coating to make the surface reflective will be blasted off with the amount of energy being transferred.

  25. Tom

    Just for its absurdity...

    ... you gotta love it.

    These will easily be able to fly into enemy territory - the enemy wont want to shoot them down for fear of getting the toxic fuels all over their lands

  26. Remy Redert

    AMRAAM and its buddies

    What is there to stop some form of (remote targetted) long range anti-aircraft missile? Against more maneuverable threats you could probably expect them to be capable of avoiding such a threat, but that boeing is just a huge sitting duck. perhaps even better would be a missile that can travel part of the way unguided, then switch to infrared guidance. Again the boeing provides a perfect target with its 4 jet engines.

  27. J-Wick

    Pew Pew Pew PewPew


    Pew Pew! Pew!

    Pew Pew Pew!


  28. Charles


    Neither mirror finishes nor spinning will work if the beam is hot enough and/or focused enough that a fraction of a second is all that is required to perform the job. The mirror finish would distort, and a spinning missile can't spin out of the kill zone quickly enough. As for targeting, a targeting laser would welcome a reflective finish since it would make range finding *easier*--targeting lasers *work by reflection*.

    As for protecting the plane, the US already has a plan for it. Otherwise, such planes as AWACS and tanker planes would not be able to function.

  29. Richard Neill

    Wrong Strategy

    It's interesting to point out that, for less than the US spends on the military, they could eradicate poverty worldwide. Wouldn't it be more effective to actually get people to like them?

    Furthermore, the paradox of defence is always that the better the defence, the more you are likely to need it. The more you shield politicians from the consequences of their mistakes, the dumber their decisions get...

  30. Charles

    Re: Wrong Strategy

    The US already has an arm dedicated to this purpose: the US Peace Corps, mentioned a lot 20 years ago but not now. There are also a lot of western-based charities functioning in the third world.

    Anywya, it's hard to teach a man to fish when there are no fish. For many parts of the world, the place is too full of too many people too poor to even try to find someplace better. It's sorta like being stuck in the middle of the Sahara with a bullet hole in your canteen--sometimes, you're basically just up Crap Creek.

  31. Nexox Enigma

    @Phil Tanner

    """And if they can find a material to reflect the beam for the full length of the firing at point blank range, then surely a coating could be found to deflect the remainder of the beam after several kilometres of atmosphere has taken it's toll upon it?"""

    I don't know the specifics about the mirrors that they use on this particular system, but if they're anything like other high powered lasers, they'll have some extremely precision ground mirrors with an extremely exotic coating vapor deposited on to an atom or two in thicknes, then they'll be hooked up to a few kW of active cooling equipment.

    The price of even a smallish mirror is immense, and the size of the cooling equipment is significant, such that it is beyond unfeasable to make something like a missile that reflective.

  32. Stephen Gray

    @ Richard Neill

    You're one of those filthy Commie, pinko, anarchist, Leftie free thinkers, there's no place for you in the New World Order.

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Stealth missles

    Instead of making the surfaces shinny which also makes them highly visible, coat the surfaces with a stealth nano-paint that would not only eliminate any reflection from targeting lasers but from any radar targeting systems. It wouldn't eliminate the heat trail for targeting purposes but would defeat most if not all the missile defense shield capabilities.

  34. Anonymous Coward


    ummm 2 words - ECM and flares, most planes carry one or both and being the US it wouldnt surprise me if was being shadowed by an EA-6B Prowler,

    which would give it all manner of protection from missiles and ground based launch systems.

    Though personally I think its a shame they scrapped EF-111 Raven on "cost" grounds.....supersonic jamming and anti radar abilities and I think the ABL project would make the Raven program costs seem cheap

    Then again airborne laser step closer to laser/phaser pistols or perhaps a lightsabre, shame the UK govt wont let people defend themselves, heck I dont think anyone would want to rob a house with a placard stuck out front proclaiming "Proud NRA member" and "I will defend my home and property" or even "I walk quietly and carry a big lightsabre" (no puns please :P ), especially if the neighbour has no signs or "peace and love to all men".....If I was a burglar (Which I'm not) I know whose house I would rob and it wouldn't be Mr NRA's......being chased by a light sabre / laser gun toting angry thank you!

  35. Jesse
    Thumb Down

    RE: Wrong Strategy

    It is also interesting to point out that all problems, even global, are easily solved by a person on the internet.

  36. Anonymous Coward

    Escorts? I think not

    Why would this big ray-gun need an escort? All it needs to do is detect the enemy planes / missings fired as it and zap any idiots who fly too close.

  37. Chris G

    Just a thought

    But does the Bush family own Boeing shares?

  38. Neoc

    The only way to test this...

    "Thus Boeing are happy that it will work as expected". Hah. Let's see them prove it the only way that matters:

    "Now son, yah people tell me this here new-fangled ray-gun will work as promised. So tell you what - we're gonna get yah and the board of Boeing to stand on this here painted X and we're gonna fire an ICBM fully loaded with conventional explosive at this location. You willin'? Or does yah machinery still need fixin'?"

  39. Paul Smith

    Pew! Pew!

    @ J-Wick

    Thanks man.

    One post to rule them all!

  40. Bounty


    No way we're getting this thing deep into Russia or China, so basically it's only useful at stopping Iran/Pakistan/India from nuking Israel or Eastern Europe... and really shouldn't we let them deal with that? Give them ground based lasers.

    Unless maybe it could be used to stop North Korea, but I'm guessing South Korea wouldn't be against a ground based system, and a carrier based system would probably also work better... so this is still pork. Not to mention you can use regular rockets for a land or carrier/sub based system. so pork pork.

  41. Anonymous Coward

    Anybody in here old enough to remember the movie "Real Genius"?

    Mine's the one with "What about that time I found you naked with a bowl of jello" on back

  42. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Richard Neill

    "...for less than the US spends on the military, they could eradicate poverty worldwide."

    Let's see... the defense budget is roughly $500b, give or take. Let's assume that there are 6b people in the world, and that 40% of them are impoverished. Given that wealth is distributed in an extremely lopsided way, that's probably roughly there.

    So, let's divide that out, and we have $500b dollars distributed to 2.4b people. That gives each impoverished person the wholloping total of two hundred smackers. Which is about 130 euros.

    If you think that's going to 'eradicate' poverty, feel free to continue in your delusion. The rest of us will be waiting out here in the real world when you decide to emerge.

    And as far as fostering good will among the people of the world, there are certainly scenarios where that could help, but our most dangerous enemies are the ones who don't take bribes - flinging money at nutball dictatorships like North Korea or Iran isn't going to suddenly make them love us. "OK, Iran - we know that you despise our way of life, think that Jews drink blood for passover, and would rather face your own glass-parking-lot demise than admit your false bluster, but how about we buy everybody a twelve pack of brewskis and two pairs of Levis, and we'll call it even?"

    Nope, don't think so.

  43. heystoopid
    Black Helicopters


    @graham you crack me up , but Google/Yahoo is your friend as it will show for every style of weapon there exists a number of counter measures , also it seems you appear not to have heard of or overlooked the low flying subsonic cruise missile armed with the small light weight versatile variable five to twenty kiloton warheads which would flash crisp any airbase on land within range period before they knew what hit them and can be launched from any submarine equipped with the twenty four inch long lance sized torpedo tubes .

    Interestingly around the early seventies when the Americans chose to activate then deactivate their ABM system one day later based on then modern Martin Marietta Sprint Missile system armed with nuclear warheads(self blinding ABM defense system is an interesting concept in itself) and a large Billboard Phase Array radar aerial system, the US based Scientific American published a very interesting study paper about the effects of various types of deliberate upper atmospheric nuclear detonations on all electromagnetic radiation based detection systems based on extrapolated data derived from these tests conducted in the late fifties and early sixties and information obtained from various very large Hydrogen bomb ground tests as well . Since that day the level of very sensitive easy to kill micro electronics use in every day life has increased one billion fold .

    I think Joshua got that one right in 1986 the only way to win this game is not to play as everything else is flash fried crispy earth on all continental land masses north and south of the equator thanks to M.A.D. .

  44. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    vulnerable boost phase

    So this thing hangs around waiting for those few seconds to hit a target, but how does it know the target is an enemy ICBM heading for the USA rather than a test rocket, satellite carrying rocket etc etc all in those few seconds? Ok, so "scheduled" rocket launches are probably known but what's to stop the bad guy telling fibs about an ICBM and pretending they are launching a new sky tv?

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