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Protect and Defend II - Star Wars and Stealth

Science and Technology, National Security

In my first post on the state of America's military and the dependence on air power, I described the impressive capabilities of the F-22 Raptor and lamented the reduction in quantity purchased. I also asserted that air superiority is absolutely essential to the success of any military action today. Reliance on the troubled F-35 Lightning II "Freedom Fighter" as the sole replacement for rapidly aging legacy fighter aircraft, averaging in age about 25 years and deteriorating, is increasingly risky. Here is the latest update, along with a discussion of missile defense given the unabated thrust of the North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapon delivery systems. In my opinion, we are rapidly approaching an extremely dangerous state of diminished military capability and defense vulnerability.

F-22 Raptor:  I previously stated that the Department of Defense (DOD) had reduced the Air Force request for 381 F-22 Raptor fighters to 187 (6 added by Congress). The Obama Administration has canceled the project outright, shutting down the production facilities thus making it impossible to build more without long delay and great expense. We're stuck at 187 for the duration. Meanwhile, the F-35 program is over 2 years behind schedule and so far over budget that the current unit cost--as much as $135 million--is nearly the same as the more capable F-22 at $140 million each. The program is in a Nunn-McCurdy breach due to cost overruns, which could require restructuring and endless investigations. The Air Force General in charge of the project has been fired ("re-assigned"). The program, originally scheduled to go operational in 2010, is now delayed at least until 2013. Meantime, our existing fighters continue to deteriorate due to overuse.

Now the Russians have announced their own stealth fifth-generation fighter, the PAK-FA (see photo) modelled, as is their practice, on our F-22. The all-important avionics package for this guy is unknown and probably inferior to ours, unless they steal that too. Make no mistake, the Russians build very good airplanes.

Russian PAK-FA Stealth Fighter

I suspect the Russians will not be playing partisan politics with their air-superiority stealth fighter, and will sell it to anyone with the bucks. There is reason to believe that it is a "work in progress," but it is very likely that it will eventually be more capable than the F-35, the only egg in our basket.

Airborne Laser: A little-known Air Force/DOD project over the last 10 years or so is the Airborne Laser (ABL). This is a high-powered laser crammed into a modified Boeing 747 and designed to destroy an ICBM during the boost phase. This is NOT the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) proposed by Reagan which gave the Soviets nightmares. SDI involved missile interceptors that would destroy an incoming ICBM during the re-entry phase. The problem with this is the remnants of the ICBM could fall on friendly territory, as demonstrated in Desert Storm when a SCUD missile was successfully intercepted by a Patriot missile and destroyed, but the warhead survived and crashed into an Army barracks killing 128 U.S. troops.

Destroying the ICBM during the boost phase, as is the intent of the ABL concept, will result in the debris likely falling on enemy territory, much more desirable. In addition, an airborne anti-missile system can go anywhere, not limited by its physical location. Following is a fairly technical description of this fascinating project, unfortunately also recently canceled by the Obama Administration immediately after its first successful airborne test. (See photos.)

ABL Aircraft  YAL-1 (Note laser output mirror in nose pod. Laser beam projects sideways, right at you.)

ABL Successful Test

In this photo, the perspective is misleading. The YAL-1 aircraft (right) and target ICBM (left) were hundreds of kilometers apart.

Technical Description (If you're not interested, skip this section.)

Lasers: "Laser" is an acronym for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation."  The physics are quite complex involving atomic energy and activity states. Essentially, a gas laser imparts energy to gas atoms, pumping them up to an unstable higher energy state which then decays, emitting energy in the form of light of a very specific frequency (color). The familiar neon sign, although not a laser, works this way by exciting neon gas with a high alternating voltage. Neon emits a characteristic red light. There is no amplification of light in a neon sign.

The most common gas laser is the helium-neon (HeNe) laser, where helium is mixed with neon to enhance the excitation. The HeNe laser emits the characteristic neon red light at a wavelength of 633 nanometers (NM), called coherent light because it is a pure color. (Other colors are possible via essentially harmonic selection, at a considerable reduction in power.) In this case, there is amplification which greatly intensifies the output light beam.

The amplification is accomplished by high voltage acting on the light reflecting back and forth in a straight glass tube with facing mirrors at the ends. The voltage "pumps" the helium atoms by raising their energy state. The helium atoms then excite the neon gas atoms by collision, which then emit the characteristic red light. The atomic excitation process, called "pumping", increases incrementally as the light reflect back and forth between the mirrors, providing the light amplification.

The mirror at the output end is only partially reflective, allowing a small portion of the light to escape. This is the laser output beam. The output power of the laser is determined in part by the length of the tube. The light bleed-off stabilizes the laser at its design output power, measured in milliwatts for HeNe lasers. Other gases produce different colors and can generate much higher output power levels. For example, the CO2 gas laser, commonly used in industry for metal cutting, produces very high powers and emits well into the invisible infrared region.

In a nutshell, a laser creates pure-color light by stimulating atoms, usually gas, to emit light and re-stimulating ("pumping") them repeatedly by reflecting the light between opposing mirrors, thus providing the "light amplification."

There are solid state lasers which operate on essentially the same principle but on a much smaller scale. There is considerable research into increasing their power output, but heat dissipation is a big problem. However, through semiconductor doping, many different colors can be generated. They're also relatively cheap and require much less electrical power. Those little laser pointers use solid state lasers. (No, they can't blind pilots. The output power is much too low and dissipates quickly with distance. The pilot-blinding was probably done with much more powerful light-show lasers.)

There are many types of gas lasers using different gases, but they all generally operate on the same principle as the HeNe. Some are tunable and can change color within a small range. Output light "colors" range from the deep ultraviolet to the far infrared.

COIL:  In order to generate enough power to fry a distant missile, a very special laser system is necessary. The device built for the Airborne Laser (ABL) is a chemical oxygen-iodine laser (COIL). The iodine is stimulated to generate the light, which is in the near infrared--barely visible--at a wavelength of 1.315 micrometers. It operates by combining a nasty brew of chemicals which react to stimulate oxygen atoms which, instead of emitting light transfer their energy to the iodine which then emits the light. There are pumps and nozzles and all sorts of plumbing to make this thing work, but it is perhaps the only laser system capable of generating megawatts of continuous power.

Because of size and heat dissipation requirements, the airborne COIL consists of six identical serial-connected modules each weighing over three tons stuffed into the body of a Boeing 747. (See drawing)

YAL-1 Airborne Laser Aircraft Cutaway

Infrared sensors along the fuselage or satellites detect an ICBM launch. Low power illuminator lasers find the target and provide aiming data. The higher power CO2 ranging laser system pinpoints the target range and provides precise atmospheric distortion information. This data is used to control a set of deformable mirrors that focus the high-power COIL laser beam, compensating for atmospheric effects in the path to the target. The main laser is directed by a rapid-response telescopic mirror and fires sideways from the nose turret, striking the target missile and heating its skin to the point of structural failure. This all takes about ten seconds. The laser beam has sufficient power to destroy a target at a range of up to 600 kilometers.

To summarize, I personally think the ABL was an excellent program, proven to work and incorporating unique advantages. The ability to destroy an ICBM launched from anyplace in the world during the boost phase are advantages not possessed by any other anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. The YAL-1 Boeing 747 platform would be able to loiter at 40,000 feet for as long as 12 hours due to augmented fuel capacity. It could reach any hot spot in a few hours at a speed of 600 mph.

My personal suspicion concerning the cancellation of this program is that Vladimir calls Barack and says, "We Russians don't like this ABL because we don't have one." Barack replies, "We certainly don't want to offend our Russian friends, so I will cancel the program forthwith." O.K., that's fantasy, but I can't help suspecting it may possess a smidgeon of truth.

Conclusion: I will defer to the words of an expert. This is a quote from Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security analyst and Director of the Center for Defense Studies, excerpted from an article in the Weekly Standard.

"[The Air Force] has fallen on hard times. The 1990s, the time of Operation Desert Storm and the Kosovo war, look in retrospect like the golden age of airpower. The future looks like a nightmare. The Obama Administration's decision to terminate the F-22 Raptor program, combined with the technological and program-management problems with the F-35, raises previously unthinkable questions about the American ability to assert air superiority in a modern defense environment."

To which I would add, without air superiority and the means to defend against ICBM attacks, our conventional ground and naval forces are sitting ducks as are we civilians. If we lose that, the U.S. will no longer be a dominant military force and the survival of this nation as we know it will be in doubt. We will be at the mercy of any nuclear power with a large army, something the world is full of and growing. The world is not a friendly place. This wealthy nation of ours is a very ripe-looking plum to many in the world, to say nothing of being the "Great Satan" which must be destroyed.

Many of you reading this will scoff at my alarmism. To you, I will quote once again from historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote about the great ancient city-state of Athens: "In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all--security, comfort and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again."

The Achilles heal of this great nation, and of many others in the past, is complacency. I assure you without any fear of error, that there are wolves at our door and we better have the means to defend ourselves.

National defense must not be subject to risk and pragmatism. Fearfully, that seems to be the course of our present government.

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