Kansas members of Congress are readying for battle with the announcement Monday that an airborne laser weapon that the Boeing Co. and Wichita hold dear is being proposed for elimination from the Defense Department's budget.
At stake in the 2010 budget is a second test Boeing 747 to be outfitted with three lasers to zap ballistic missiles.
On Monday, as he announced his department's new budget proposal, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said: "The ABL program has significant affordability and technology problems, and the program’s proposed operational role is highly questionable.”
Translation: It's expensive, not working yet, and do we even need it?
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“In the coming weeks,” Gates predicted, “we will hear a great deal about threats and risks and danger to our country and to our men and women in uniform, associated with different budget choices.”
So he was hardly surprised when Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican from Wichita, said the Obama administration was making “a wrong and incredibly dangerous decision” on the $1 billion-plus aircraft.
Earlier, a letter sent by Sens. Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts, also Kansas Republicans, noted the proliferation of missiles across the globe and said the system’s full funding was “critical to the future of our national security capabilities.”
Critical perhaps, but also eight years behind schedule and $4 billion over cost.
“The first airplane is moving so slowly that buying the second at this point would be premature,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank. “They turned a five-year program into a 10-year program.”
Breakthrough technologies don’t happen overnight, said Mike Rinn, Boeing’s director of the airborne laser program.
“Some people are still dubious about the value of a system like this,” he said. “I can tell you that we can kill them quicker and cheaper per shot than the other pieces of the missile defense system (can). We can get out there faster to the theater. We could stop a war.”
Rinn spoke from Edwards Air Force Base in California, where the first plane, known as YAL-01, is in tests. It could try to destroy its first missile by late summer using Northrop Grumman lasers and a fire control system from Lockheed Martin.
The YAL-01 was modified in Wichita, where about 20 engineers are still working on better affordability and a wider mission application — against attacks by aircraft or smaller surface-to-air missiles, Rinn said.
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