Dumping airborne laser weapon leaves United States vulnerable

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At 8:44 p.m. Feb. 11 — for just a second — man made night into day.

A short-range ballistic missile was launched from a sea-based platform off California’s Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center. Moments later, the airborne laser carried aloft in a specially modified 747 detected it.

Then, it cranked up the high-energy laser. That beam struck home, burning a small hole in the missile. A split-second later, its structural integrity destroyed, the missile vaporized in a tumbling corkscrew.

Within two minutes of launching, it was all over.

Not bad for a defensive weapon once ridiculed as science fiction. Skeptics even convinced the Obama administration to slot the airborne laser for the ninth circle of procurement hell — a pit for dead-end research and development programs. But this month’s dramatic success has put critics on their heels.

But don’t expect high-fiving in the White House. The administration already passed on the option to build a second test aircraft. Rather than add the laser to the military’s arsenal, the administration seems more than willing to let the project end as a successful science experiment.

It will argue laser missile defense makes no sense because the weapon’s range is limited to a few hundred kilometers. That would put the lumbering aircraft well within the range of air defense systems fielded by the likes of North Korea and Iran.

On the other hand, here’s what the administration won’t admit: There are other threats already out there that the laser is well-suited to counter. One such danger is the Scud-in-a-bucket scenario.

Scud missiles are shorter-range weapons, originally manufactured and proliferated worldwide by the Soviets. Today, several countries make their own versions. These missiles are so readily available — and cheap — that several years ago a U.S. arms collector bought one and tried to ship it home.

Iran’s Shahab-3, an advanced Scud variant, seems capable of traveling 1,000 kilometers and carrying as much as a 10 kiloton warhead. It couldn’t reach Washington, D.C., from Tehran, but it wouldn’t have to. Iran could easily extend the missile’s reach simply by moving it to a commercial freighter and firing it from nearby using an improvised vertical launch tube disguised as cargo.

An airborne laser could help neutralize this threat, and others, too.

But if the administration has its way, we’ll see the weapon in the Smithsonian rather than defending our coasts.  

Examiner columnist James Jay Carafano is senior research fellow for national and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation.

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