Laser R&D became a mission for AFWL during the 1960s and was its main focus into the 1970s. The military began to view lasers as potentially superior to conventional weapons because of lasers’ intensity over great distances and envisioned developing them for ballistic missile defense, as well as anti-satellite and anti-aircraft missions. In 1968, the USAF authorized the AFWL to design, build, and fire a GDL capable of engaging targets that were static or in motion. The Advanced Radiation Technology Office at AFWL built its TSL at SOR in 1971, naming it the Air Force Laser (AFL). Mating of the AFL and Field Test Telescope (FTT)—the first step toward shooting down an aerial target with a laser—took place in October 1972. The successful mating of the AFL and FTT in 1972 was a milestone in the USAF high-energy laser research. That same year, AFSC assigned responsibility for the USAF’s portion of the DoD’s high-energy laser program to AFWL. AFWL scientists were determined to use the AFL to shoot down a drone aircraft. A year later, in November 1973, the AFWL met the three milestones and succeeded in the first shoot down of an aerial target by a laser.
While a ground laser could track and engage a moving target, an airborne laser had the added difficulties of vibrations, beam propagation, and pointing a laser from an aerial platform. Development of the Airborne Laser Laboratory (ALL) became the centerpiece of AFWL’s laser program in the 1970s. The ALL term was coined in 1972, and the ALL program began with Cycle I testing in 1973 and ended with the completion of Cycle III in September 1983. The ALL was a modified NKC-135, and the 4900th Flight Test Group was formed for aircraft operations. Laboratory testing occurred in the 400 area of Kirtland AFB and initial ground tests in hangar 1001, while the hangar at the Advanced Radiation Test Facility (ARTF) at the southeast corner of the runway was being constructed. ARTF was used for later ground tests that aimed the APT from the ARTF test pad to a target in the atmosphere in order to calibrate aircraft instruments in preparation for flight tests. Along with the five NKC-135, the 4900th FTG operated a fleet of five F-4Ds, one RF-4C, three NC-135As, five C-130s, and several A-37s, F-100s, and helicopters.
These flights tests took place from January to July 1975, with the first “good” beam generation occurring in March. Testing ended in 1976, and although the airborne tests demonstrated the need to upgrade the tracker, the optical quality of the mirrors, and the stabilization of the APT, they clearly proved that a laser could be accurately pointed in an airborne environment. After 1977, work continued on the ALL, which would reach its goal in 1983.
In 1979, AFWL achieved a milestone in the development of airborne high-energy laser weapons. The High Energy Laser Radar Acquisition and Tracking System (HELRATS) was designed specifically to track enemy aircraft and missiles. Installed at North Oscura Peak on the White Sands Missile Range between May and November 1979, HELRATS underwent extensive testing against aircraft and missiles. These tests were critically important steps to developing the DoD’s high-energy laser program. Range tests took place from May to December 1979. The most successful of the tests was one that shot an AIM-9B downrange; the beam in the test cell delivered and locked onto the aim point on the missile dome, causing damage to the dome, guidance, and seeker unit inside the AIM-9B. This test demonstrated that the ALL systems could work as a unit and disable a target.
In July 1980 a “hot firing” test of the system was made being the first airborne test of the system. The flight took place near WSMR at 10,000 feet. A series of airborne systems tests were then made prior to extracting a beam from the ALL. In January 1981 a high-energy laser beam was generated inside the ALL, directed through the APT, and propagated in the air outside the aircraft; this was the first demonstration that the ALL components could work as a unified system and point to a target. The highlight of the ALL program occurred in May 1983, over the Naval Weapons Center Range at China Lake, California, where the laser was combined with a sophisticated pointer and tracker to negate, or disable, five AIM-9 “Sidewinder” missiles. While the missiles did not fall from the sky in pieces, they were disabled to the point that they could no longer locate, track, and strike their target.
Despite its success, weapons planners ignored the ALL because its missions had been categorized as “proof of concept” rather than demonstrations of a viable war tool. The ALL aircraft was retired in 1984 and stored in hangar 760 at Kirtland. Four years later it took its final flight to Wright Patterson AFB, where it is now on display at the United States Air Force Museum. About a decade later, after the Gulf War, the concept of an anti-missile laser was revitalized in the Boeing YAL-1 airborne laser program.
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