Back in February, the Missile Dfense Agency announced the final test flight of the Airborne Laser, the ray gun-equipped 747 that became a symbol of wasteful Pentagon weaponeering. Despite 16 years and billions of dollars in development, the jet could never reliably blast a missile in trials. And even if it did work, the thing would cost $US92,000 per hour to fly, and would have to be just about over the missile site to do its blasting. So the jet was finally ordered to the Air Force’s “Boneyard” in Arizona, where it would join thousands of other aircraft the US military didn’t want or need.
Or at least, that was the plan. Now the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces panel is saying: not so fast. In its markup of next year’s Pentagon budget, the subcommittee is directing the head of the Missile Defense Agency to tally up “the costs involved with returning the Airborne Laser aircraft to an operational readiness status” so it can continue to be tested, and so it could “be ready to deploy in an operational contingency, if needed, to respond to rapidly developing threats from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.
The provision, first noted by InsideDefense.com, is yet another sign of the degree to which magical thinking has crept into the missile defence debate. In the same markup, the strategic forces panel called for the military to start work on an interceptor system for America’s East Coast — even though the Missile Defense Agency says it’s not needed. And the subcommittee called for a discarded and famously fragile radar (sometimes known as “the Giant Golf Ball of Death“) to be ready for duty as well.
The topic has always inspired some starry-eyed thinking, of course. Newt Gingrich floated the idea of laser strikes to stop North Korea’s 2009 missile launch. (And let’s not even bring up the thousand mad schemes hatched during the Strategic defence Initiative of the 1980s.) But with Washington in the midst of an austerity push, and with more than $US274 billion already spent on anti-missile tech, the disconnect between missile defence dreams and missile defence reality appears particularly acute.
The subcommittee wants nearly $US75 million set aside “to preserve the skilled workforce that was involved in the Airborne Laser Test Bed program and to accelerate experimentation with next generation directed energy system development”. (That’s Washington-speak for ray guns.) The experimentation is supposed to include the “planned testing of the Phantom Eye system” — a seemingly-odd choice, since the experimental, hydrogen-powered drone has been introduced as a flying spy, not a attack craft. But the missile defence world has a way of encouraging seemingly strange choices. Putting a laser on the Boeing-built aircraft, designed to stay in the air for days at a time, would hardly even qualify as weird.