Boeing Wields a New Laser

According to a Pentagon announcement issued Friday, last week Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) successfully completed a test of one of the coolest weapons ever designed (not their exact words). Specifically, it is a Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (which you'll no doubt notice comes really close to spelling "COOL" in acronym form) manufactured by Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC  ) and mounted on a modified Boeing 747 jet.

The combined weapons system, unimaginatively termed the "Airborne Laser" system, is part of President Bush's 21st-century update of President Reagan's Star Wars missile defense program. If further tests go well -- and this code-named "First Light" test was just an intermediary step, in which the weapon was not even airborne and was fired for just a fraction of a second -- the Airborne Laser would be used to fly patrol near "countries of interest." There it would keep lookout for ballistic missile launches and, seeing one, shoot the missile down at the most vulnerable point in the missile's trajectory -- as it struggles slowly skyward against gravity, moving in a straight line.

It's worth pointing out that, Star Wars-inspired or no, the Airborne Laser bears as little resemblance to Han Solo's blaster as, well, a circa-1960s IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) room-sized computer bears to a circa-2004 Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) Macintosh. For one thing, the Airborne Laser is a heck of a lot bigger, being composed of six linked modules, each the size of an SUV. It's also a lot less focused because of its laser beam refracting through the air over a distance of hundreds of miles and ending up, by the time it reaches its target, in a "pinpoint" the size of a basketball.

So clearly there's still room for improvement in the system -- and that's probably fine with Boeing. Last week's successful test gives the Airborne Laser a chance to continue proving itself and Boeing and Northrop a chance to continue improving their product. It also gives them a good shot at continuing to receive funding out of the nearly $500 million allocated by Congress to the program for fiscal 2005.

And if the program is ultimately successful? Why, that's the best part of all for sci-fi-loving investors. Because, you see, Boeing and Northrop are also teaming up to bid to build the successor to NASA's space shuttle. First laser guns, and now spaceships? Give 'em a few decades, folks, and mark my words -- these guys will build us an X-Wing yet.

For more Foolish defense news, read:

Fool contributorRich Smith owns no shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article.


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