Aircraft

Argus C-135E - High-Altitude Missile Killer

Air Force Keeps Eyes Wide Open with Airborne Laser Aircraft
by Lawrence Spohn

July 10, 2000

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Named for the mythological giant with 100 eyes, the U.S. Air Forceís Argus aircraft has returned to its Albuquerque hangar after weeks of eyeballing the worldís hot spots.

"We fly at 480 mph and we make 6,000 readings per second," said Capt. Pat Kelly, an Argus flight-test engineer.

The readings, which include temperature, air speed and atmospheric distortion, are considered crucial to national defense, specifically to ensuring the success of a leading anti-missile defense system, the Air Forceís Airborne Laser Aircraft.

Being developed at Kirtland Air Force Base here, the $1.2 billion Airborne Laser is being outfitted with a powerful laser, computers and optics that the Air Force says will make it a deadly adversary for tactical missiles that might be launched by rogue nations, such as North Korea or Iraq.

Not surprisingly, Argus has made its atmospheric measurements for the Airborne Laser in the vicinity of those countries.

The Airborne Laser is scheduled to conduct its first missile tests in 2003 and could be battle-ready shortly thereafter.

Although its proponents see it as the weapon of the future, officially the Air Force advertises it as part of a national, multi-service, anti-missile defense umbrella. Eventually, the Air Force wants Congress to fund a fleet of Airborne Laser missile killers at an estimated cost of $11 billion.

The Argus is a C-135E aircraft freighter that costs about $2 million per year to operate.

Earlier this summer, Argus spent some 150 hours flying at as high as 47,000 feet in the dark skies near the Korean Peninsula and in the Persian Gulf, collecting huge volumes of data in the third trip in a seasonal series aimed at detecting even minute atmospheric changes over the course of a year.

Underneath the nose of the aircraft is a special anemometer that uses wires finer than a human hair to measure temperature to an accuracy of one-thousandth of a degree.

The information is currently being analyzed at the Air Force Research Laboratoryís Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland, said Wayne Wasson, Argus flight-test program manager.

"They have all the equations," he said, noting "they know a lot more than we do and designed all the special equipment on board (Argus). They tell us what they need. We go get it, bring it back, and they figure what it all means."

The answers are vital to the Airborne Laser, which Wasson explains needs precision information on the variables in the atmosphere to make sure its laser tracks on target and destroys an enemy missile at the speed of light.

"Itís a high-altitude killer of missiles and it has to find them as quickly as possible off the ground and knock them down at low angles of incidence," he said.

Air Force officials have said they also believe they can adapt the laser to shoot down cruise missiles that hug terrain on the way to their targets.

Argusí data will be put into an Airborne Laser atmospheric library that will make it possible for the laser gunners to fine-tune the weapon for atmospheric peculiarities around the world, he said.

"Itíll probably all be automatic," he said. "Once they tell the computers where they are, it will all be locked in and boom. Itíll just go out there, get the specifics and do it."

Contact Lawrence Spohn of The Tribune in Albuquerque, N.M., at http://www.abqtrib.com 

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