Ben Bova

The Department of Defense has canceled the Airborne Laser (ABL) program. ABL was intended to shoot down ballistic missiles with a powerful laser long before they could reach their targets. Killing the program is a serious mistake, in my opinion.

Of course, I may be biased. I worked at the research laboratory in Massachusetts where the first high-power laser was invented.

In February 1966 I helped to arrange a top-secret briefing in the Pentagon to inform DOD that lasers of weapons-grade power were now a reality.

In the studies triggered by that briefing it became clear that one of the potential uses of powerful lasers would be to shoot down ballistic missiles.

A megawatt-class laser could blow a hole through the skin of a missile, which would ignite the missile's propellants and blow the bird out of the sky. It would be similar to the explosion that wrecked the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

The trick is to "get 'em while they're hot." That is, hit the missile with the laser beam while the missile is in its launch phase, with its main rocket engines burning. The missile is easy to find at that point, and very vulnerable.

Since the laser beam strikes with the speed of light, if you see the missile you can hit it, even if the laser-carrying plane is more than a hundred miles away when the laser is fired.

The Missile Defense Agency tested the concept, developing a four-engined Boeing 747 to carry a megawatt-class laser built by Northrup Grumman. Last year, in the first test against an actual missile, the airborne laser system successfully destroyed its target.

The basic idea behind the airborne laser concept was to deploy laser-armed planes in areas where our troops might come under missile attack, as they did in the first Gulf War, in 1991. A single Iraqi Scud that hit an Army barracks killed more Americans than the entire Iraqi army.

In my 2010 novel, Able One, I showed how an airborne laser system could knock down nuclear-armed missiles aimed at the United States by a rogue nation.

But now, as part of the wave of budget cuts at the Department of Defense, the airborne laser program has been terminated. DOD said the program was too costly to be continued.

Penny wise and pound foolish, in my opinion.

Now we will depend on anti-missile missiles to shoot down attacking ballistic missiles. Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system uses such missiles. It's had about a 75% success rate against missiles fired from the Gaza Strip. That's better than no defense at all, of course, but not good enough if and when we face nuclear-armed missiles.

It would be very expensive to keep a fleet of airborne laser planes in operation, true enough. But they could hit ballistic missiles aimed at our homeland or our troops overseas while those missiles are in their launch phase, long before they deployed decoys to confuse our defenses.

To borrow some terms from football, it makes tactical sense to play the game as close to the other side's goal line as possible. Anti-missile missiles try to hit the attackers in their midcourse flight, or — if the midcourse defenses don't get the job done — then so-called terminal defenses come into play.

To continue the football analogy, that's like playing in midfield or attempting a goal-line stand.

The Obama Administration is placing more reliance on diplomacy and economic sanctions than on actual defenses against ballistic missiles. I wish President Obama well in this pursuit, but I'd feel much better if we had strong defenses. Diplomacy works best when you negotiate from a position of strength.

When it comes to the costs of missile defense, what is the real estate value of New York City, or of Los Angeles, or any other American city? What is the dollars-and-cents value of our troops stationed overseas?

An effective missile defense system might even allow us to retire a portion of our own nuclear attack planes and missiles. It could be cost-effective.

And it would draw the fangs of those who today are building their own missiles and developing nuclear weapons to use against us.

Ben Bova's novel, "Able One," deals with missile defense. Dr. Bova's website address is www.benbova.com.

© 2012 Naples Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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