A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Tucson, AZ, to visit the Pima Air & Space Museum. It’s a fantastic facility with more models and types of aircraft than I have ever seen anywhere, including the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington. If you are anywhere near the museum, it’s highly recommended.
Just across the street from the Museum is the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in an area called the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), which is also sometimes referred as the “Boneyard.” The Boneyard is a place where old military aircraft are stored, stripped for parts, and sometimes shredded into metal scrap. I took the bus tour of the Boneyard while I was visiting Tucson.
Among the 4,000+ aircraft at the 2,600 acre facility, there is a large lot with a single Boeing 747 slowly being disassembled. This plane, known as the Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed, is a $5 billion failed U.S. military experiment in directed energy weapons. The YAL-1 contained a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) mounted inside and used a lens mounted in a turret on the aircraft nose to direct the laser at its target.
The plan was for a group of YAL-1 aircraft to remain in flight for long periods at a time, and fly near potential enemy missile launch sites. When the missiles were in the boost phase, the YAL-1 would lock-on to their heat signature and then fire its chemical laser to destroy the missile, or at least damage it so that high speed flight stress would do the missile in. At least that was the plan. The reality was that the YAL-1 had to be much closer to its target than originally anticipated and either atmospheric conditions or an enemy hardening its missiles could reduce this range further. In the end, the YAL-1 program was deemed a failure, and a costly one at that.
Within the next several months, after any salvageable parts are removed, the YAL-1 will be chopped-up into small pieces and sold as scrap.
Since the YAL-1, the U.S. military has gone in a different direction. Grandiose plans of using lasers to destroy ICBM’s are pretty much being put on hold. Instead, smaller lasers are being designed and deployed for specific tasks. In April, Lockheed Martin received a $25 million U.S. Army contract to design and build the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD), a large military truck with a laser that emerges from a turret mounted on top. This vehicle is designed to “improve the ability of soldiers to destroy rockets, artillery shells, mortar rounds and unmanned aircraft.” The laser is a 60 KW fiber laser.
Not to be outdone, the U.S. Navy has been testing or has deployed three types of lasers for use on Navy surface ships; fiber solid state lasers (SSLs), slab SSLs, and free electron lasers (FELs). The Navy has installed a 33 KW fiber laser on the USS Ponce.
Although the use of lasers by the U.S. military has definitely evolved these last 20 years, certainly for the better, it’s still a bit sad to see this one bit of laser history disappear.