Defense Acquisitions:

DOD Efforts to Develop Laser Weapons for Theater Defense

NSIAD-99-50: Published: Mar 31, 1999. Publicly Released: Mar 31, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Defense's (DOD) programs to develop laser weapons for missile defense, focusing on: (1) what laser weapons are being considered for missile defense and the coordination among the program offices developing the systems; (2) the status and cost of each system; and (3) the technical challenges each system faces as determined by DOD program managers and analysts and other laser system experts.

GAO noted that: (1) DOD is developing two laser weapons--the Airborne Laser (ABL) and the Space-Based Laser (SBL)--which U.S. forces intend to use to destroy enemy ballistic missiles; (2) in a joint effort with Israel, DOD is developing a ground-based laser weapon, the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL), which Israel will use to defend its northern cities against short-range rockets; (3) ABL is funded and managed by the Air Force, SBL is jointly funded by the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and the Air Force, and THEL is funded jointly with Israel and managed by the Army; (4) ABL, SBL, and THEL are in varying stages of development ranging from conceptual design studies to integration and testing of system components; (5) the ABL program is in the program definition and risk reduction acquisition phase and is scheduled for full operational capability in 2009, with a total of seven ABLs; (6) this schedule reflects a 1-year delay from the original schedule; (7) the Air Force estimates the life-cycle cost of the ABL to be about $11 billion; (8) the SBL program is about a year into a $30-million study phase to define concepts for the design, development, and deployment of a proof of concept demonstrator; (9) DOD estimates that it will cost about $3 billion to develop and deploy the demonstrator; (10) the future of the SBL program is unknown, pending the outcome of a DOD assessment of the program; (11) the $131.5-million THEL Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program is about 34 months into a 38-month program; (12) system components have been built, but system testing has been delayed from December 1998 to July 1999 due to administrative and technical problems; (13) laser experts agree that the ABL, SBL, and THEL face significant technical challenges; (14) the technical complexity of the ABL program has caused laser experts to conclude that the ABL planned flight test schedule is compressed and too dependent on the assumption that tests will be successful and therefore does not allow enough time and resources to deal with potential test failures and to prove the ABL concept; (15) if DOD ultimately decides to continue the SBL program, the size and weight limitations dictated by current and future launch capabilities will force the program to push the state of the art in laser efficiency, laser power, and deployable optics; and (16) initial testing of THEL's laser has identified problems with the operation of chemical flow control valves and with the low-power laser that is to be used in tracking short-range rockets the system is being designed to defeat.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress approved funding for DOD to procure the second aircraft for this program.

    Recommendation: Regarding the ABL Program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to reconsider exercising the option for the second ABL aircraft for the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the program until flight testing of the ABL system developed during the program definition and risk reduction phase has demonstrated that the ABL concept is an achievable, effective combat system.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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