EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — The Pentagon has mothballed a laser-equipped jumbo jet after 15 years and $5 billion worth of research to develop an airborne missile defense system.
Budget cuts shot down the Airborne Laser Test Bed but some research into anti-missile lasers will continue, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.
“We didn’t have the funding to continue flying the aircraft,” said agency spokeswoman Debra Christman.
The plane, a Boeing 747 mounted with a high-energy chemical laser, has been sent into storage at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, the agency said. The base near Tucson, Ariz., serves as a boneyard for military aircraft.
The Boeing was the centerpiece of the laser-based missile defense system research program that began in 1996. The conclusion of the program “represents the end of a historic era in airborne directed energy research, not only for Edwards Air Force Base but for the Department of Defense at large,” Lt. Col. Jeff Warmka, director of the Airborne Laser Test Bed Combined Test Force at Edwards.
It was one in a series of missile defense programs that originated in President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 — the so-called “Star Wars” missile shoot-down effort that was criticized as expensive and overreaching. The airborne laser program never got beyond the testing stage.
It was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled money for a second aircraft several years ago, calling the concept fatally flawed.
Gates said the laser wasn’t powerful enough to knock out missiles without forcing a plane carrying it to loiter in enemy air space. He also said an operational airborne system would have required a fleet of up to 20 aircraft costing around $1.5 billion each.