Commentary Magazine


The Star-Wars Fantasy

Back in June, the Democratic-controlled Congress was reported by Aviation Week to be planning to cut funding for the Airborne Laser (ABL), an essential element in American efforts to develop a shield against missile attacks. I wrote at the time in Anti- Anti- Anti- Missile Defense that “if the U.S. or one of its allies falls victim to a nuclear-missile attack that we are unable to avert, it will be much too late for finger-pointing at the people responsible for delaying–or killing–our defensive capabilities. It is better to do the finger-pointing now.”

The good news now is that prudence has prevailed and the program continues fully funded.

The even better news is that on August 31 the Airborne Laser completed one of its most significant test to date. A Boeing-747 was rigged up with a low-power laser and used to detect, track, and then engage a target–in this case, another aircraft.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency statement reports that this test included a number of history-making firsts, which include:

lasing an external airborne target using all three ABL lasers–the Tracking Illuminator Laser to track the airborne target; the Beacon Illuminator to compensate for atmospheric distortion, and the Surrogate High Energy Laser to engage the target, called “Big Crow,” a modified NC-135 aircraft loaded with test instrumentation and equipped with a missile-shaped profile painted on the side of the aircraft to provide an aimpoint for the three lasers. Cameras onboard Big Crow verified all laser beams hit their intended locations, and data analysis has verified ABL’s performance is adequate to enter the program’s next phase. This is the first time in history an airborne directed-energy platform has successfully engaged a non-cooperative airborne target at significant ranges.

Surprisingly–or should I say unsurprisingly–this major milestone was not reported by any newspaper in this country. Why not?

When Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in 1983, it was widely ridiculed. The New York Times editorial page mocked it as “a pipe dream, a projection of fantasy into policy.” Having invested heavily in the proposition that SDI was nothing more than a “Star Wars” fantasy, is the Times, and the American media as a whole, reluctant now to take losses?

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