By BRYAN CORLISS
SEATTLE – Boeing jumbo jet freighters carry big loads: autos, livestock, food.
There’s one in Wichita, however, that’s carrying something really heavy, like maybe the weight of the world.
Boeing Co. workers there are a little more than halfway finished with an 18-month project to convert a standard-issue, Everett-built 747-400F cargo jet into the U.S. Air Force’s first airborne laser weapons platform.
The five-year mission: To seek out missiles that endanger civilization, and to boldly blow them where no weapon has blown them before, out of their own airspace.
“This is such a revolutionary weapons system,” said Stephen Sauvn, a Boeing vice president and director of the Airborne Laser Program, speaking recently in Seattle over chocolate cake served to celebrate the program’s fourth anniversary. “It’s going to revolutionize how wars are fought. Instead of bullets, it’s light.”
The project grew out of the Gulf War and the Scud missile attacks launched by Iraq against Israel.
American Patriot anti-missile batteries were dispatched to defend Israeli cities, but they had mixed results. It’s hard to hit a fast-moving missile with another missile. And even when they did succeed, having burning debris from shattered missiles falling into a populated area was almost as bad as having the missile attack succeed.
The airborne laser project attempts to fix those problems.
The plan is to have a squadron of seven planes, which would be dispatched to world trouble spots in a crisis.
If a nation, such as Iraq or North Korea, launched a missile attack against a neighbor, the remodeled 747’s sensors could detect it during its boost phase. The plane’s systems would swivel the 21st-century equivalent of Captain Kirk’s phaser around to lock onto the missile, which would be moving relatively slowly as it struggled to gain altitude.
The crew would then fire the weapon, releasing a focused beam of photons – subatomic light particles – against the side of the missile. The beam wouldn’t actually explode the target, but it would melt through its side, causing the pressurized rocket fuel to burst.
The whole process takes about 10 seconds, Sauv said.
Best of all, the debris falls back over the launch area, which creates a big deterrent to launching chemical, nuclear or biological weapons, Sauv said.
“It’s an exciting project,” he said. “It protects American lives.”
It’s a Star Wars kind of weapon, even though the 747 freighter isn’t nearly as sexy as Luke Skywalker’s X-wing fighter.
“The 747 was the answer to the question because it gave us a big plane with a lot of room and a lot of features like cruise speed, cruise altitude and power,” said Bob Englade, a spokesman for Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, which is home to the U.S. Air Force’s directed energy weapons programs.
Even so, the plane needs a lot of modification to carry the weapon, Sauv said.
The laser turret in the 747’s nose weighs about 1,500 pounds. That means there have been extensive modifications to the structure in the front of the plane to handle the weight.
The power-generating portion of the laser is carried in the back. It’s basically a flying chemical laboratory (mixing the chemicals puts the molecules in an excited state, enabling the photon discharge to occur), and the floor has been considerably strengthened to hold it up.
Finally, Boeing workers are installing an airtight bulkhead to seal the chemical lab off from the area where the six-member crew will work.
The plane basically is sitting in pieces in the Wichita factory, Sauv said. That’s why the work’s being done there, instead of in Everett. “If we tried to do this much change up in Everett, in line, it would really have disrupted the production line.”
The plane is scheduled to return here, however, in 2002, he said. It’ll go to the Everett paint shop to get its war paint, if you will – probably in gunmetal gray.
The laser won’t actually be installed in the plane until early 2003, Sauv said. Ground tests and flight tests will go on for several months, at the first live-fire test against an actual missile is scheduled for September 2003.
The tests should go fine, Sauv said. All the systems are proven to work separately, he said. “The major job ahead is to integrate this on the airplane.”
Already, the Air Force is looking at alternative uses for the plane, Englade said. It’s probably not nimble enough to shoot down enemy aircraft, but cruise missiles or satellites are possibilities, he said.
And it’s already anticipated that the sensory equipment on board also will allow the plane to direct attack craft at missile launch sites, he said.
An article in Jane’s Defense Weekly, an internationally recognized forum for military thinking, this summer reported that the U.S. military is looking at all kinds of alternative targets for lasers: bright bursts to temporarily blind opposing soldiers and to permanently damage their electronic early-warning systems.
And from there, it’s not hard to imagine Star Trek or Star Wars battle scenarios, Sauv said. It’s the kind of daydreaming he discourages, he said, at least until they’ve proven the system works.
“Then we can start fantasizing, start miniaturizing,” he said. “People do dream about it and this is one of the first steps to make it happen.”
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