1 April 2002
LANCASTER -- The future of missile defense systems stepped closer from science fiction to reality Monday with the Air Force's announcement of a revised testing schedule for its new Airborne Laser weapons system program to be tested at Edwards Air Force Base.
Monday's announcement came during a public hearing officially informing Antelope Valley residents of the Air Force's proposed revisions to its original environmental impact statement approved in 1997.
A handful of people concerned with the program's impact on the desert communities showed up to view film presented by program officials and hear a spokesman from the Department of Defense's Missile Defense Agency detail changes.
Opposition and support for the program was equally divided between the two audience members to comment.
"This is really the ideal place to do this kind of development," said Antelope Valley Board of Trade Director Phil Brady, registering the board's support of the program.
According to Air Force officials, the program is expected to pump $32 million into the local economy.
High Desert Green Party member Tom Bolema warned that increased low frequency emissions would exacerbate maladies already suffered by valley residents including behavioral aberrations and fetal tissue damage.
Bolema said the cost of the project was not worth the risk, especially to develop another weapon of mass destruction.
"This can more easily be used as an offensive weapon than a defensive one," Bolema said.
Program changes are limited to a slight increase in physical testing and minor scheduling changes, said assistant program director Col. Ellen Pawlikowski.
"There's been no significant change in our original plans," Pawlikowski said of the supplemental EIS presently under consideration.
Although ground testing at Edwards will include low-powered operation of the laser in its new 7,000-square-foot Systems Integration Laboratory, which is in the final stages of construction, firing of the full-powered weapon will take place during flight testing at New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range and over the Pacific Ocean near Vandenburg Air Force Base in early 2004, said Missile Defense Agency spokesman Juventino Garcia.
Designed primarily for ballistic missile defense, the program puts a weapons-class chemical-powered laser aboard a modified Boeing 747-400 series freighter aircraft.
Set to begin physical testing at Edwards Flight Test Center by summer's end, the ABL system's primary function is to detect the firing of an enemy missile and destroy it at the thrust stage while still in enemy territory.
From the Boeing jet officially dubbed the YAL-1, a powerful beam of light can be fired from an altitude of 40,000 feet at a variety of enemy targets. Using infrared sensors, the ABL's wide-area surveillance subsystem can maintain 360-degree surveillance over hundreds of miles from the aircraft while on mission.
Upon initial detection of a boosting ballistic missile, the information is sent to the battle control computers, which track the missile's trajectory and send commands to another surveillance component that provides mission personnel with a highly accurate 3-D track of its missile target.
Unlike ground-based systems, ABL will operate hundreds of miles away from an adversary's location and will be able to lock onto an enemy missile shortly after it lifts off.
ABL will fire an intense beam of heat that causes the missile's skin to rupture and its fuel to explode. Since the missile is still rising, its warhead will fall onto or near enemy territory.
Testing at the Flight Test Center is scheduled to culminate in early 2004 when Scud-like ballistic missiles similar to those used in the Gulf War will be targeted at White Sands.
Plans call for the Air Force to operate a fleet of seven of the laser-armed aircraft.
Public comments for the supplemental environmental impact report for
ASC/TMIS, attention: Maj. Cynthia Redelsperger,