A high-energy laser mounted on a US military aircraft has shot down a ballistic missile in the first successful test of the weapon, the US Missile Defense Agency said on Friday.
The experiment — evoking a scene out of a science fiction film — was carried out off the central California coast at Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center at 8:44 pm Thursday Pacific time (0444 GMT), the agency said in a statement.
“The Missile Defense Agency demonstrated the potential use of directed energy to defend against ballistic missiles when the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) successfully destroyed a boosting ballistic missile,” it said.
The laser, mounted on a turret on the nose of a modified 747 aircraft, is designed to knock out an enemy missile by burning a hole in its side.
The project has been touted as potentially revolutionary, as the lasers are supposed to destroy ballistic missiles just after launch, when the missiles are moving at a slower speed on a predictable path.
The test could provide a boost to the five billion dollar program that has faced technical problems and been scaled back from initial plans that called for building a fleet of seven laser-equipped aircraft.
Last year Defense Secretary Robert Gates cancelled funds for a second prototype aircraft and called for more research to refine the weapon. He said the proposed role for the laser remained “highly questionable” amid questions about its cost and effectiveness.
The proposed defense budget for fiscal 2011 has no specific funding for the airborne laser but includes about 99 million dollars for directed energy research, Missile Defense Agency spokesman Richard Lehner said.
Aerospace giant Boeing is the lead contractor for the program, with Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin as partners.
In a successful test last year, the high-powered laser was fired from mid-air for the first time.