The original plan for the ABL program called for two developmental aircraft, one of which, known as Tail 1, exists. A second development aircraft, designated Tail 2, was planned. Both Tail 1 and Tail 2 were intended as research tools, not as operational weapons. It was anticipated that once the development was complete, a fleet of seven operational aircraft would be acquired for a single CAP. This would allow the ABL to be used for boost-phase defense at one site.
The Air Combat Command (ACC) CONOPS document for the defense against one threat location (within the coverage of a figure-eight flight pattern) would require seven aircraft.16 Of the seven, five would be needed to keep two aircraft on station 24/7, and two would be in maintenance. If the maintenance has not included any laser or chemical operations, the aircraft can be rapidly turned around for another sortie until ~23 hr of engine run time accumulates, at which point engine oil servicing is required. If there have been laser or chemical operations, 24 hr are required between sorties.17 A standard crew shift would normally be limited to 12 hr to avoid fatigue. A single fuel load can keep the aircraft aloft for 7 hr at about 12 km. Without refueling, 1 hr of that time would be for transit from base to station, 5 hr on station, and 1 hr to return to base. With refueling, there would be one refueling during a single crew shift. A report from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) notes that refueling time is about 1 hr, so the total time on station would be 12 – 1 – 1 – 1, or 9 hr for a 12-hr mission.18 From this, it is easy to see that at least five flight-ready aircraft would be needed to keep two on orbit with redundancy to cover some gaps.
Clearly it would be very important to establish air supremacy over the enemy territory where the ABLs would fly. The ABLs are very high-value assets, and they would be high-priority targets for an enemy attack. MDA has suggested that the ABLs could fly with escort aircraft to deal with conventional aircraft.19 The committee does not concur with this suggestion. The long-term escort of unarmed assets is not supported by Air Force policy. MDA has also suggested that the ABLs have some self-defense capability, but the committee has not been told how that function would fit into the CONOPS. There is an obvious vulnerability, because the laser weapons cannot defend the rear of the aircraft.
A different and more challenging threat to the ABLs would be long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Simply staying out of range of SAMs may prevent an ABL from attacking an enemy’s missile. The use of onboard self-defense systems similar to those on other operational aircraft has been suggested, but the committee has no information on the efficacy of such measures for this applica-
16DOD Office of Testing and Evaluation. 2010. “Airborne Laser (ABL) Assessment of Operational Effectiveness, Suitability, and Survivability,” January.
17Missile Defense Agency. 2010. “ALTB Questions in Preparation for March 16-18 Presentations to the National Academy of Sciences,” March 17.
18DOD Office of Testing and Evaluation. 2010. “Airborne Laser (ABL) Assessment of Operational Effectiveness, Suitability, and Survivability,” January.
19Missile Defense Agency. 2010. “ALTB Questions in Preparation for March 16-18 Presentations to the National Academy of Sciences,” March 17.