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Assessment of Long Range Laser Weapon Engagements: The Case of the Airborne Laser

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Science & Global Security, Vol. 18, page(s): 1-60

January 2010

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This article presents a method developed to assess laser Directed Energy Weapon engagements. This method applies physics-based models, which have been validated by experiments. It is used to assess the capabilities of the Airborne Laser (ABL), a system for boost phase missile defense purposes, which is in development under supervision of the U.S. missile defense agency. Implications for international security are presented.

The article begins with a general introduction to laser Directed Energy Weapons (DEW). It is notable that several laser directed energy weapon prototypes have recently become operational for testing. One of them is the ABL, a megawatt-class laser installed into a cargo aircraft. It is concluded that only the ABL could have significant political impact on an international scale at the moment. Hence, the remainder of the article focuses on the assessment of that system. The laser intensity, the induced temperature increase of a target and the impact of this temperature increase on the mechanical properties of the target are calculated for different scenarios. It is shown that the defensive capability of the ABL against ballistic missiles is limited. Even a successful laser engagement that deflects a missile trajectory from its intended target can have negative impact for third parties, as missile warheads will most likely not be destroyed.

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