The Future Put on Hold

Bryan Kimbell /

The Airborne Laser Test Bed (ALTB) was recently retired to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, primarily due to the assertion that “the program’s proposed operational role is highly questionable.” While this might be true in some scenarios, the program did build some advantages for the future.

The ALTB is an aircraft with a direct energy laser. It was developed to identify, track, and shoot down enemy ballistic missiles during the most vulnerable boost phase of flight, when missiles are slow and before they are able to deploy decoys. The aircraft has the potential to strike numerous targets concurrently, from considerable distances (hundreds of kilometers), with a relatively low cost for each intercept attempt compared to presently deployed missile defense interceptors. In February 2010, the ALTB successfully performed the “first directed energy lethal intercept demonstration against a liquid-fuel boosting ballistic missile target from an airborne platform.”

The ALTB could be used for protecting the U.S. coast from ship-launched, short-range ballistic missiles, which are capable of producing an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack if they are nuclear-tipped. This scenario has been a grave concern in the realm of national security ever since the 1998 Rumsfeld Missile Commission report brought such a threat into the popular discourse.

Dr. William R. Graham, chairman of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the U.S. from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, testified to Congress that Iran has been performing tests that strongly suggest an interest in triggering warheads at high altitudes using ship-launched ballistic missiles. An EMP is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by the rapid acceleration of charged particles. Such an attack could end modern life in America overnight by causing entire regions of the country to lose electricity permanently. A successful EMP attack could result in airplanes literally falling from the sky; vehicles could stop functioning, and water, sewer, and electrical networks could all fail at once. The ALTB has the capability to defend against this potentially devastating scenario.

In 2009, the Obama Administration decided to demote the program from active development status to a test bed and cancelled the second aircraft production. These actions and, now, the termination of the program will make it more difficult to advance directed energy weapons concepts in the future. In addition, terminating this program will continue U.S. vulnerability to short-range ballistic missiles fired from ships off U.S. coasts. This is contrary to the Administration’s stated policy of a layered approach to missile defense. As other countries are developing EMP weapons, this is not the time to put this defense capability on hold.

Bryan Kimbell is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: