Aircraft, awful and awesome: “The Flying Phaser”

Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

Since the beginning of the electronic age, the idea of some sort of an electronic “ray gun” has been a staple not only of science fiction writers (H.G. Well’s “War of the Worlds”), but it has also been the focus of many serious military experiments. Indeed, the history of radar begins with experiments in Great Britain when scientists began working on developing some sort of “death ray,” an idea hatched by a science fiction cartoon character named “Buck Rogers” who carried not only a death ray but a disintegrator ray, a heat ray, and a stun ray.

***image1***The British began to attempt to develop a radio-frequency radiation system for anti-aircraft use that would raise the blood temperature of aircrew so high the blood would boil. It was quickly determined that the power required would be far in excess of any generating system available, but the attempt to use radio frequencies to find aircraft led, eventually, to radar (an acronym coined by the U.S. Navy from the British name Radio Direction and Ranging).

Fast forward to the 1960s and the development of the LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation), a beam of very coherent light waves of only a single frequency and capable of producing an enormously powerful, very narrow beam of light,  resulted in a rebirth of the “death ray” idea. 

Laser beams are accurate enough to perform delicate surgery on the retina of the eye and strong enough to puncture tiny holes in diamonds.  Laser beams are also unaffected by the pull of the earth’s gravity or by winds, and travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second).  By the early 1970s it was clear that the laser showed tremendous potential for attacking ballistic missiles, which are lightly built and very delicate in flight.

Fast forward again to the 21st century. The world’s first Airborne Laser (ABL) armed aircraft was the Boeing YAL-1A Attack Laser, a system that was to become a critical component of the Department of Defense’s theater missile defense strategy. 

The system was mounted on a Boeing 747-400F which first flew on July 2002. After ground testing of the laser and successful firings in 2004, the YAL-1 was assigned to the 417th Flight Test Squadron Airborne Laser Combined Test Force at Edwards. The operational user will be Air Combat Command

The YAL-1 uses a high-energy, chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) chemical fuel similar to rocket propellant to generate the high power laser and is planned to have sufficient laser fuel for from 20 to 40 laser shots, depending on the target.

The system is mainly intended for use against Tactical Ballistic Missiles such as the SCUD, and the YAL-1 carries an infrared target acquisition system to detect the high energy exhaust plume of TBMs in the takeoff, or boost, phase.
Once the missile is detected, three low power lasers track the missile, calculate its course and speed, once the tracking problem is solved the main laser is fired for 3 to 5 seconds from a turret located on the aircraft’s nose. A hit will cause the missile to break up in flight over the launch area.

The YAL-1 is not designed to intercept TBMs in the terminal (descending) phase, so the aircraft must be within a few hundred kilometers of the missile launch point.

Later YAL-1s will contain a more powerful laser, incorporate other hardware and software refinements and have the support infrastructure to operate at forward bases. Despite its potential, currently budget uncertainties are dogging the program, and an airborne test against a tactical missile, currently scheduled for 2009, may be delayed.

Questions or comments?