The US this week achieved a goal that has eluded it since Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars programme by knocking out a ballistic missile using a high-powered laser beam mounted on a plane.
The successful test was carried out yesterday in California, the US Missile Defence Agency (MDA) said, making real what had previously been confined to the realms of science fiction.
The plane uses a combination of lasers to lock on to the missile and track its trajectory, and then bring it down with a single shot fired from the nose turret, all in less than 12 seconds.
According to analysts, the breakthrough could have an impact on the North Korean and Iranian missile programmes, forcing them to develop faster missiles and adopt measures to counter the laser beams.
The MDA said today: “The revolutionary use of directed energy is very attractive for missile defence, with the potential to attack multiple targets at the speed of light, at a range of hundreds of kilometres, and at a low cost per intercept attempt compared to current technologies.”…
Last year the defence secretary, Robert Gates, decided that the programme should be scaled back, keeping research to a single plane, because of scepticism about how practical it would be.
John Pike, a defence analyst and founder of Virginia-based Global Security, said he doubted the test would change Gates’s view. “Gates seemed to believe that there was no prospect of the plane engaging targets at ranges of several hundred kilometres, and that engagements at ranges of less than 100 kilometres were not militarily interesting,” he said.