Even after the fall of the Soviet Union 24 years ago, the threat posed to the U.S. and its interests from regional ballistic missiles is not going away anytime soon.
According to the 2013 Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat Assessment, there are now over 20 nations around the world fielding ballistic missiles, and recent regional conflicts such as those in Libya, Syria, and Yemen have all seen ballistic missiles fired in anger.
Why are many countries developing, or obtaining ballistic missiles?
Largely for the same reasons that armed forces worldwide are fielding integrated air defense systems in lieu of large fighter fleets for homeland defense: they can be cheaper to operate, hard to find, and act as a considerable deterrent – especially when armed with chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or (high-yield) explosive warheads.
Ever since the onset of the Cold War, the United States has been obsessed with assessing the ballistic missile capability of other nations, and it has been footing the bill to prove it. In the 1950s and 60s, as missile technology progressed rapidly, this interest escalated to epic proportions, as evidenced by the highly secret RC-135 programs.
Known as Rivet Amber and Rivet Ball, the pair of highly-modified Boeing C-135s equipped with extremely powerful radar and optical systems operated out of Shemya Air Force Station (now called Eareckson Air Station), an incredibly remote installation on Shemya Island at the western end of the Aleutian Chain. They were operated in secret, and designed specifically to monitor missile launches in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.
To paint a picture of how important these Rivet programs were, the programs were categorized I-17/18, meaning only 16 projects at the time were of greater importance to the USAF. At the time the Rivet Ball operations were getting underway at Shemya, the Soviet Union had just tested the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. The realization that the Soviets could lob missiles containing multiple nuclear warheads weighed heavily as fears of nuclear annihilation were widespread, and intensified just months later as the Cuban Missile Crisis began to unfold.
The data gleaned from Rivet Amber and Rivet Ball (and their follow-on replacements) regarding the Soviet tests heavily influenced the United States’ defense posture. So critical, in fact, that immediately following surgery after a failed assassination attempt in 1981, President Reagan issued orders to replace the RC-135S Cobra Ball II that crashed on landing at Shemya just a few weeks prior. No fan of mutual assured destruction, Reagan soon announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a comprehensive plan to intercept and destroy Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) before they could reach their targets.
One of the anticipated components of the SDI was a nuclear explosion-powered X-ray laser to be placed in orbit around the earth with the task of destroying the incoming ICBMs. This seemingly wild proposal from physicist Edward Teller gave rise to the derisive “Star Wars” nickname for the SDI. Even though many of the planned systems like the space-based X-ray laser never proved entirely practical (in no small part due to the fact that such a system would violate numerous treaties preventing nuclear weapons being staged in orbit), many technologies that emerged from the SDI research spilled over into other arenas outside of the defense sector. The DoD of course was a beneficiary, amassing a wealth of technical expertise related to ballistic weaponry that the Missile Defense Agency employs today within the Ballistic Missile Defense System.
The Ballistic Missile Defense System, or BMDS, is a networked system of land, sea, and space-based sensors, weapons systems, and command and control nodes, all designed to destroy incoming missiles before they reach their targets. It’s a modern evolution of the SDI, continuously testing and developing new technologies to protect the US from a limited attack from long-range ICBMs as well as the persistent, growing threat of regional missiles from the likes of North Korea or Iran.
Though the “Star Wars” X-ray laser project by now has long been cancelled on an official level, the precedent for using a laser to destroy missiles had already been set by the Air Force’s Airborne Laser Laboratory onboard yet another modified C-135. Have we mentioned how awesome the Boeing design is? This particular example was dubbed the NKC-135A, and although it wasn’t tasked with downing ballistic missiles, the system did prove successful against smaller AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared missiles and drones before testing ended.
Fast forward to the first Gulf War, where Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces launched a total of 88 SCUD missiles at both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Though rudimentary in their employment, the SCUDs were a thorn in the side of coalition forces. This helped spur renewed interest in tactical ballistic missile defense to the point where, in 1996, a team comprised of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman Space Technologies (formerly TRW) was granted a $1.1 billion contract to develop a laser weapons system that would “kill” a missile from 40,000 feet. Though the threat from Soviet ICBMs diminished with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the threat from regional conflicts still persisted. Star Wars wasn’t entirely dead after all.
Designated the YAL-1A, a highly modified Boeing 747-400 freighter first flew on July 18, 2002, and installation of all the laser and mission systems took place over the next few years. The enormous and heavy components and chemical tanks comprising the high-energy, megawatt Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) system necessitated a large aircraft, so Boeing’s 747-400 freighter was a natural choice for the ABL platform. The mammoth 104-inch turret on the nose of the aircraft contained the optics for the laser and all but ruined the easy lines of the Boeing.
The aircraft actually carried 3 lasers onboard: 2 low power kilowatt-class solid-state lasers for tracking and focusing the high-energy beam that is actually used to destroy the target. One of the lower-power types, the beacon illuminating laser is used to correct for any atmospheric distortion so that the larger, high-power COIL beam can be accurately placed onto the target missile.
In a 5 second burst, the COIL laser uses enough power that could run a house for over an hour. That might not sound like a lot of power, but the COIL need not eliminate the missile with the beam itself. Instead, it uses two methods to persuade the missile to destroy itself: either using heat to increase the internal pressure of a liquid fuel tank until combustion or by heating a ring around the missile which causes structural failure.
The YAL-1A, operated by the 417th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards AFB, underwent a series of ground and airborne tests and by March 2007 it had successfully acquired and tracked a moving target that just happened to be a giant missile painted on the side of yet another NKC-135 called the “Big Crow.”
But even by December 2007 concern about fielding a fleet of YAL-1As was growing, due to weight, size, and logistical concerns with operating a fleet of 747s for around the clock missile defense. The program began its decline even as testing was ramping up, and a second prototype YAL-1A was canceled before it was ever built due to “affordability and technological problems and concerns about ABL’s long-term operational role,” according to the MDA.
Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also had plenty of harsh words for the YAL-1A, saying “I don’t know anybody at the Department of Defense who thinks that this program should, or would, ever be operationally deployed… if you were to operationalize this you would be looking at 10 to 20 747s, at a billion and a half dollars apiece, and $100 million a year to operate.”
Nevertheless, testing continued with YAL-1A #1 and in February 2010 it succeeded in downing its first missile. The success was short-lived as just two years later, 00-0001, the one and only YAL-1A Airborne Laser Test Bed aircraft was relegated to the “boneyard” at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in February of 2012.
After slowly (and carefully, since the YAL-1A carried lots of toxic chemicals when operating) being picked apart the unique YAL-1A was finally broken up without fanfare in late September 2014, becoming an organ donor in its last act of providing thousands of useful parts that were farmed out to various other 747-based programs.
So what now? The YAL-1A and the Airborne Laser program racked up a $5 billion tab before it was cancelled, but the Missile Defense Agency continues to work on airborne laser technology. This time with drones, the MDA is expected to flight test a new airborne laser system around the 2021 timeframe.
But as Paul Scherre of the Center for New American Security says, “few weapons have held as much promise – and have consistently failed to live up to that promise – as directed-energy weapons.” Time will tell if the Missile Defense Agency can get it right, but the question might be which do we run out of first: time or money?
(featured photo by Jonathan Derden, taken only a month before the YAL-1A was broken up)