back to article US raygun jumbo fluffs another test missile-blast attempt

The United States' enormous jumbo-jet-mounted raygun, the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB), has suffered another embarrassing test failure. During an attempt to beam down a target missile off the Californian coast last week, a technical hitch saw the 747's blaster cannon fail to fire up. Warfare of the future as foreseen by the …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Anonymous Coward

    "Damn LLLAAAAGGGG" could be heard on the ground over the radio?

    then sounds of someone smashing the keyboard on floor and jumping on it!!!!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up


      LOL - just spat my coffee out, ahh, the week is looking better already

    2. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD


      Lol... or curses like "omgwtfbbq! h4xxxxx... what a n00b! faillllllll"

  2. Geoff Campbell Silver badge
    Black Helicopters


    How very last century.

    Surely any country intending to nuke the US would deliver a device in a container ship, or similar?


    1. TeeCee Gold badge

      Re: ICBMs?

      You'd like to think so. That way they might stand an outside chance of hitting the bloody thing while it was on its way.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Container ship..

      And there's me thinking it was in the clowns cannon..

      No shaken Martini icon...

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Black Helicopters

      re: ICBMS?

      why deliver more nukes to the US when they have plenty already?

      much less risky plan to just detonate one of theirs....

      or there is always fedex. after all, they deliver.

      i can hear the black helicopters already...

  3. Robinson

    I still don't understand this.

    I still don't understand this at all. I would have thought creating a counter-measure in the form of a missile surface that reflects inbound laser radiation (a surface polished by 1,000 North Korean children with Mr Sheen) would be enough to make the air-born laser obsolete. Or am I missing something here?

    1. The Indomitable Gall

      Surface melt

      Even the best mirror in the world would melt pretty much instantly due to the power of the beam.

      1. Jan 0 Silver badge

        Re: Surface melt

        So what stops the mirrors in the laser from melting?

        1. Francis Boyle

          Built in liquid cooling

          Putting that amount of power through a solid state system would indeed result in the parts getting a bit too hot for comfort, which is precisely why a chemical system was chosen. As long as the fuel is pumped through at a sufficient rate the apparatus can be kept to an acceptable temperature. That of course, as it turns out, is the easy part.

      2. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

        If that were true...

        ...the laser itself would melt in the course of firing.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Black Paint

    There have been a lot of comments suggesting that the defence against this thing is to wrap the missile in something reflective. However, would a better defence be to paint the missile matt black to stop the aiming laser from locking on?

    Of course, you have to hope it works since matt black is the worst possible colour for defending against the main laser.

    (I think making it reflective is actually hard as the laser is infra-red, so you need to gold plate the missile)

    Black helicopter icon because there isn't a black missile icon

    1. Robinson


      Near or far infrared? AFAIK (as I work with Infrared in my job), plain, clear glass will reflect IR radiation, although I'm not too sure it would survive launch :p.

    2. The Indomitable Gall

      Refractive coating?

      If your countermeasure is to block the tracking laser, the question is whether a matt coating (diffuse reflection) is more effective than using a refractive coating simply to disperse the specular reflection.

      With a highly specular material (gloss black) the tracking laser would have to hit it damn near perpendicular to get a reflection. A clear, highly refractive coating would narrow the margin for error quite considerably.

      An ICBM in flight is going to present a truly perpendicular surface to a jumbo jet for at most a fraction of a second, at only two or three points on its flight path, before the end of the first stage.

    3. The Indomitable Gall

      Yeah, check it, blud.

      Yo man, dis ICBM I has got is da bomb. Check it, it's well blingin -- it like solid gold man. See dat America? She is gonna be like soooooooooo jealous when she sees ma ICBM. She gonna be like "wow, man, you is like cool man".

    4. Pete 2 Silver badge

      Easier than painting

      Just wait until the weather gets bad and the aiming laser (or the big bugger, for that matter) gets absorbed by the clouds. The same plan works for confounding satellite surveillance. Just wait until it's cloudy, then do all the clandestine work safe in the knowledge that the capitalists can't see you.

    5. Allan George Dyer
      Black Helicopters

      Two layers...

      Gold-plate it, then deposit a thin layer of carbon.

      Hopefully, the black carbon defeats the aiming laser, but, if it doesn't, it instantly burns off in the main beam, and the reflective layer protects the missile.

      If both layers fail, accuse the USA of increasing their CO2 emissions.

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Do I sense a small flaw?

    > Once the aiming laser is locked onto the missile (the plane knows this by looking for its light

    > reflected back off the rocket's hull)

    Grunt: General Sir! We were unable to destroy the missile.

    General: Why ever not?

    Grunt: The enemy have developed counter-measures against our laser tracking system, Sir. We couldn't lock on.

    General: What have they got? Refractive cloaking technology?

    Grunt: No Sir. They painted it black.

    General: The crafty commies! Where did they get the paint technology? The Russians?

    Grunt: No Sir. The CIA says they got a bulk lot of matt-black spray paint on eBay. Seller left them positive feedback and everything.

    General: Damn!

    1. Thomas 4

      And cue the Rolling Stones

      "I see this missile and I want it painted black...."

  6. Anonymous Coward

    I am reminded of the West Wing...

    " By the way, the words you are looking for are, 'Ohh, good grief!' "

  7. William Boyle
    Black Helicopters

    X marks the spot

    They forgot the kick the equipment on the proper spot when it refused to fire up. Don't they know that staple technique of all SciFi thrillers, that if your boffin-built kit doesn't work when the enemy missiles (or other threat) is on the way you are supposed to kick, pound, or otherwise whack the offending gear in the appropriate spot (varies with equipment and failure mode)? Man, what Bozos!

    1. Elmer Phud

      Unless . . .

      . . .unless it was already under the influence of the 'Pratchett Effect', otherwise known as 'a million to one chance'.

    2. James O'Shea

      It's not fiction

      SOP for early in flight computer systems which had drum storage was precise that: kick the bloody thing when it didn't feel like working. There are at least two documented instances of drum drives going on strike just as A-6 attack aircraft were on their bombing runs above North Vietnam and one or both of the aircrew kicking said drum drives into submission, so that they could get rid of the bombs and get the hell out of there.

      Bleeding edge American kit has a long, long, LONG history of being not quite ready for prime time, going back to WWII (their bleedin' torpedoes didn't work, air-launched, submarine-launched, or ship-launched; look up what happened in the Battle of Midway, for example; the Lee/Grant M3 tanks had _riveted_ armour, with interesting results when they took main gun hits and rivet heads popped off and flew around inside the tanks; the Sherman tanks burned so easily that they were known to the Allies as Ronsons and the Germans as Tommycookers) and before that to WWI (the fire-control systems on their battleships didn't bloody work and some moron at the War Department thought that the Browning Automatic Rifle was so advanced that t it couldn't be issued to front line troops 'cause it might be captured and the Germans would Learn Something from Superior American Engineering, with the result that American troops were issued a French machinegun which was so pitiful that the French refused to use it...) and before that to the ACW (on land, they screwed up the fuses for the mine which became The Crater at Petersburg; on the water, they had _severe_ problems with USS MONITOR, among other ships. Fortunately they were fighting the Confederates who were even more incompetent.) and lots of other examples from even before that. However, they usually fix the problems after a while. Give 'em time. This will be fixed. It might take a while, though. The Tommycooker Shermans were still in action in 1973, in the Sinai... and they no longer burned so easily. They were, however, just a little _old_. And the BAR saw action in WWII, by which time Inferior German Engineering had turned out the MG34 and 42, direct copies of which, with the swastikas filed off, are still in use by most of the world's armies. (The American copy, the M60, had serious problems at first. Of course. They can't even copy stuff right...)

      1. disgruntled yank


        1. What if anything did US battleships shoot at in WW I? I can't imagine they ever engaged the enemy. (And if we're going on about WW I battleships, what about the Royal Navy's armor-piercing rounds that didn't, and the battle cruisers that tended to blow up?)

        2. The Crater went off just fine. Unfortunately the division commander assigned was consuming high proof in the bombproof, and didn't quite stagger into action in time.

        3, The Monitor, as with the eponymous class of ships, was made for shallow coastal waters. It was also produced in one hell of a hurry. It fought its one fight only to a draw, but strategically speaking that was good enough. (See point 1, re Jutland.) It sank under tow,.

        4. Hell, yes, we can copy right. The Springfield that was the standard infantry arm from before WW I until superseded by the M-1 was a blatant knockoff of the Mauser. The patent claims got lost somewhere in the reparations.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Miss the point?

        The American Military Industrial Congressional Complex (and its predecessors) is about feeding the hands that contribute to elected officials' campaign funds and the hands that vote for those same "representatives". All the rest is window dressing. If it works, great. If it doesn't, throw some more money at it - sooner or later, if you throw enough often enough, that money will find its way into the hands of scientists, engineers and planners that know what they are doing.

        Historically, America's wars paid generous dividends but, since Viet Nam, it's been more like the European experience with military-backed imperialism in that, sooner or later, the cost far exceeds the benefits - and, if carried far enough, will bankrupt the sponsor.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Thumb Up

        Yeah - stupid is as stupid does.

        Reminds me of the story about some idiots in a bank being asked to stop an overpayment that was made - because while the account showed the amount had been withdrawn - the actual transfer wasn't going to take place for another 20 hours... - because it's against the bank policy - but the customer can always get a reversal afterwards if they pay a $50 bank fee.....

  8. PT

    Not a failure really

    Remember, this is the arms industry. It isn't necessary that the damn thing works, only that it gets paid for.

    1. blackworx
      Thumb Up


      It isn't necessary that anyone knows the damn thing works perfectly well already, as long as they keep paying for it.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The reflectance needed to defend against a megawatt-class laser is probably not acheivable. Consider: if the surface is absorbing 1% of the incident beam, it is absorbing 10,000 Watts of power. Even if you factor in dissipation (at range) at a factor of 10, that is still 1000 watts of flux. This would probably be enough to degrade the reflective surface so that its reflectance goes down and it absorbs even more energy, leading to thermal runaway and destruction.

    This analysis is for 1MW laser; it is possible that the US weapon has a greater output.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      A nit pick....

      Absorbing 1% of the beam... Hmmm 10.000W over how big an area? - from what range?, through the fuzzy-fying atmosphere, on a metal surface that is being cooled by a 3000Kmh + air stream....?

      A 2 or 3 shot lazer in a single jumbo, buzzing off the coast of Nth Korea.... Ummmmmmm

      How many ICBM's and nuke warheads do Russia and China now have?


      Let me see.... ship 50 containers of tractor parts, home electronics and refridgerators, to 50 ports around the USA.... leave them sit on the docks for a little while... detonate.

      Load up 50 aircraft doing passenger services across the USA, synchronise the air bursts to be over the cities.....

      Ummmm get the country to be run by arseholes in the banks, the food industry and import lots of drugs from Mexico etc., and then brain wash them with religion/s, and then watch the country crash and burn in it's own psychotic filth...

      Praise Jesus - we have a solution.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The tracking laser has to lock on to a very high degree of accuracy in these tests, for safety reasons. In an actual shoot-down in-theatre, the accuracy requirements for the tracking laser. could be reduced considerably.

  11. David Lucke

    Good grief, not the reflection one again

    This has been stated many, many times before, every damn time the ABL is mentioned, but apparently people are still not seeing it.

    Reflective surfaces don't work. At all. Niether does spinning the missile.

    The reason is that at the energy levels we are talking about, the reflective surface has to be absolutely perfect. 99% isn't good enough, you a whole bunch of nines (by comparison, a household mirror is 85-90% reflective). Any less than 100% reflectivity results in the mirror (which are not very robust things) being flash-heated, followed by it exploding, at which point the whole power of the laser is free to do its thing. The only way to prevent flash-heating is to cryogenically cool the rear of the mirror, over the vulnerable surface (i.e. the whole missile). Also, the mirror has to be absolutely clean (and cleaning an optically near-perfect mirror without damnaging its reflectivity is a nightmare), since a speck of dust, such as might be thrown up by, say, where the beam impacts will destroy the reflectivity completely.

    The ALTB directs its laser using mirrors, but because these are small and internal to the system, they can be kept in vacuum and cryogenically cooled relatively easily. This is not the case for a missile. Mirrors are fragile things, and even if you could somehow afford the expense of coating an entire missile with an optical mirror surface, and cope with the engineering issues involved in cryogenically cooling the whole thing, it would all break on launch.

    Oh, and this isn't some lo-tech holding a laser on it for a couple of minutes to heat it up, sort of thing. The whole shot cycle takes less than a second, and you can't spin the missile fast enough to make any appreciable difference. Frankly, I'm dubious that you could spin the thing much at all and still have it steerable, and not break up.

    1. GrantB


      Very true that mirrors & spinning won’t work, but I haven’t seen analysis on ablative surfaces? I presume a few cm's or more of carbon or asbestos layers would reduce the impact of the laser on a missile (assume the missile could lift a thick layer of armour). Liquid self-sealant layers under the surface that boil out when the missile surface is punctured might also work?

      I am guessing here that the lasers destroy fast moving missiles by punching holes in the surface (air-pressure & hi-mach air-flow doing the real damage to shift the missile off target) and through killing critical components within the missile (i.e circuits, fuel tanks). Simply punching a small hole in a missile doesn’t seem to be a death blow otherwise.

      Strikes me that a precise high energy laser beam could blow a (small) hole right through a battleship; but a large vessel with lots of redundancy would not be affected all that much compared with the impact of another missile hitting (kinetic energy) or exploding.

  12. David Lucke

    @ Black Paint

    No, painting it black won't work either. This can be shown very easily at home:

    Get a laser pointer.

    Point it at something light coloured.

    See the laser dot?


    Now point it at something matt black.

    See the laser dot?


    So can the ABL.

    1. Charles 9

      Same problem, oppposite direction.

      Just as we cannot create the perfectly REFLECTIVE surface, so neither can we create the perfectly ABSORPTIVE surface. Thus the toy laser bounces off the matte black paintjob. To compund that, absorptive coats mean exactly what they say on the tin, meaning any directed energy weapon that happens to land on it is going to bake the coat faster than a convenience store microwave.

    2. W. Keith Wingate

      Now point it at the mirror...

      That is all.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I also want to address the more strategic parts of Lewis' analysis. Although it is true that the NKs have apparently not developed a strategic missile capability as yet, the ABL/ALTB program has been extremely useful in developing many of the technologies necessary for an effective directed-energy weapon, no matter what the specific platform turns out to be. Existing real deployments of DE weapons for the Navy and Army all owe great debts to the ALTB. I note that much ALTB and related development is administered by the Joint Technology Office, which tells you that there is quite a lot of inter-service cooperation on this development. Finally, so many discussions of military R&D fail to note the considerable deterrent effect on an adversary just knowing that a possibly effective countermeasure is under active development; why spend their limited resources developing a useless weapon?

    1. Charles 9

      It's a case of...

      ..."Well we've got the bloody thing. Might as well use it 'til it breaks." A rather practical mentality, that. It's obvious going to be of little practical use in real life (AFAIK any craft that could get in range of the upward missile would probably also be in SAM range, too). And anyway, what if the much-feared nuclear attack comes from a guerilla angle, such as concealed in a container full of lead or the like (just hypothesis)? So what we're seeing is less of, "Can the ABL knock out an ICBM at 300km on a moment's notice?" and more of, "How long can the ABTL hold the beam on a SRBM during its ascent?" and other technical questions where the results are useful either way (IOW, early-stage weapons testing).

  14. Robinson
    Thumb Down


    "Good grief, not the reflection one again"

    Thanks David. Your explanation makes perfect sense.

  15. ElReg!comments!Pierre

    Uhhhhgg written by the mil alright.

    "Therefore, the high energy lasing did not occur."

    Nnnnnngggg. So now a LASER is something that lases. The goggles, they do nothing!

  16. JoelUpchurch

    Consider the Alternative

    I don't understand all the schadenfreude in the comments. If the ABL doesn't work, then the only alternative to a ICBM launch is the promise to nuke Tehran or Pyongyang if they try it. I would like to have an alternative approach that doesn't involve killing millions of people. The trouble with ICBMs is once it is launched it is over. Slower delivery systems gives time for a General or even a guard who doesn't want his family to glow in the dark a chance to give their glorious leader a 9mm lobotomy.

    In any case, I don't find the development difficulties the ABL is having as extraordinary. Study the number of failures in the early rocketry program.

  17. Steven Knox

    Forget the ABL

    I want the giant colored bubble-domes from the picture!

  18. Anonymous Coward

    Dummy missiles

    Post-separation interception is considered impractical due to the high velocities involved and ease of including dummy warheads. The airborne laser is designed to attack earlier, during boost.

    So, why not dummy missiles and missile sites?

    In addition to the payload-containing missile, fire off a handful of identical-appearing but technically simpler (and cheaper) single-stage rockets. Heck, with the weight savings from no second stage or warheads, put an ablative shield around the first stage engine and increase the laser burn time required to destroy the decoy, leaving less time and chemicals left to intercept other targets.

    Also, presumably launching a ballistic missile equipped with a nuclear warhead at your enemies would count as an act of war. So you might as well unleash your conventional forces against missile-shield vessels (subs vs. missile cruisers and SAMs vs 747s with fricken' lasers strapped to their heads) just before your missile launch, just to give them something extra to think about.

  19. adam 21

    Unreasonable idea?

    If the ALTB is a one shot item, why not launch missiles in groups with one or more carrying a payload? Sort of like an explosive lucky dip. Although I suppose this would depend upon relative costs, fleet of ALTB vs ICBM.

  20. This post has been deleted by its author

  21. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge


    Laser power is one of those "cheque's in the post" type figures - It's not the laser power that matters when you are trying make holes in things - it's the pulse energy. Having a MW laser in the back of the plane doesn't translate to megawatts into the target.

    The specs for the ABL call for it to lock onto a target for 5-10 seconds (tricky when they admit the boost phase is <12secs), rotating an ICBM during 5-10secs is easy.

    The typical defence against this sort of impact is layers of material that can be burnt off, wrapping the target in half a dozen layers of tinfoil would probably work quite well.

    But the system has already proven itself in the operation that it was designed for, transferring money from Washington->california.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    The ONLY missile that flying brick is likely to hit....

    is a SAM up its ass


  23. James 63


    Isn't there also the issue that this whole thing will only work through clear air? What happens if it's raining, or cloudy? Surely the aiming laser's going to be having a pretty hard time pointing in a straight line through all those water drops?

    Or do the North Koreans/<insert current baddie state> have to agree to only launch a suicidal ICBM attack on a clear day/night?

    1. Chemist

      Re : Weather?

      Flying above the clouds !

    2. Anders Halling


      Newsflash: Both ICBMs and 747s can and do fly above the clouds. ;)

  24. Bruce Hoult

    it's a developmental test

    I don't understand most of the comments here, or the snark in the original article.

    If they were 100% sure everything was going to work perfectly then they wouldn't have called it a "test", would they?

    It appears it wasn't the big laser that failed. They didn't get around to turning it on because the targeting didn't lock on. That seems like a good thing to me -- wouldn't want to go spraying that thing around at random.

  25. LesC


    Nice picture of the rumoured Defcon 3D game.... is it available for download anytime soon?

This topic is closed for new posts.