TYPE: Missile defence system.

PROGRAMME: Prototype YAL-1A (USAF serial number 00-0001) ordered on 12 November 1996; purchase of 747-400F airframe from Boeing confirmed on 30 January 1998. Formal authority to proceed received on 26 June 1998, after TRW successfully demonstrated laser firing and missile tracking. First metal cut on YAL-1A on 10 August 1999; rolled out at Everett on 12 December 1999; first flight 6 January 2000; delivered to Boeing Wichita on 21 January 2000 for outfitting with strengthened floor and modifications to take nose-mounted laser turret; subsequent critical design review completed in late April.
On completion of 1.6 million man-hours of work at Wichita, aircraft was originally expected to fly in February 2002, then be ferried to Edwards AFB, California, for installation of six-module COIL laser from May 2002, followed by trials against various missiles, with PDRR phase culminating with demonstration against a ballistic missile fired from Vandenberg AFB, California, in September 2003; however, by early 2002, a combination of changed defence priorities and technical issues had combined to cause delay in programme and it had been confirmed that the ballistic missile shoot-down demonstration had been postponed to 2004; 20-month EMD phase expected to begin in early 2004, with IOC of first three aircraft set for late 2007 and full operational capability (seven aircraft) in 2009.
Maiden flight following modification eventually achieved on 18 July 2002. YAL-1A completed short evaluation of aircraft performance and system operation from Wichita before being painted and prepared for delivery to Edwards AFB, where laser to be installed. Initial stage of evaluation revealed problems with buffet and lateral acceleration forces acting on pylon for active ranging system pod located above flight deck; this was sufficiently severe to necessitate removal of pylon and pod after third flight and has forced Boeing to redesign this unit. YAL-1A ferried to Edwards on 19 December 2002 and is currently expected to begin airborne laser firing tests in 2005; before that, laser unit to be tested on ground in special laboratory facility that contains a 747 fuselage.

CUSTOMERS: US Air Force (seven required).

COSTS: Programme cost (1997, estimated) US$5 billion for one concept prototype and one EMD (both eventually to be fully upgraded) and five production aircraft. Initial programme definition and risk reduction (PDRR) contract of November 1996 valued at US$1.1 billion. US$598 million requested for FY03, including US$85 million for long-lead items for EMD aircraft.

DESIGN FEATURES: Based on airframe of Boeing 747-400F. Equipped with TRW multihundred kW chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) and Lockheed Martin beam control/fire-control system, for target acquisition, plus aiming and firing of laser. Active ranging system housed in pod sited above forward fuselage section. Intended to destroy theatre ballistic missiles during their boost phase, but with additional capability against low-flying cruise missiles; other potential applications began emerging in 1998, these including protection of high-value aircraft such as AWACS and Joint STARS by destroying SAMs and AAMs; imaging and reconnaissance with aid of optical telescope; SEAD, by combining intelligence data to engage hostile missile sites and radar control systems; and command and control through search/detection of infrared signatures to aid cueing of other weapons. Laser able to fire 20 to 30 times per mission; titanium to be used instead of aluminium in certain areas to protect against heat damage to undersides caused by laser exhaust gases. Mission crew to comprise four specialists at individual consoles at rear of forward compartment, specifically the mission crew commander, airborne surveillance officer, weapon system operator and special equipment operator; standard flight deck crew of two could be augmented for long missions.