For all that I love the Star Wars trilogy (the first one), George Lucas & Co. may have done a real disservice to the U.S. defense industry by setting everyone's expectations too high.

In the movies, when Han Solo wants to blast something, he just pulls out his blaster and, er, blasts it. Simple as that. Point and click. But in real life shooting a ray gun isn't that simple. Witness the ongoing collaborative effort by the nation's top defense contractors to build the world's first airborne laser (ABL). It's been three years since we began following this story, and progress is slow (but fortunately, sure) in coming.

In a press release issued Friday, ABL fire controller Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) described a three-part (and counting) process required to fire a laser from a modified, airborne Boeing 747 (Boeing (NYSE:BA)), to shoot down an ICBM in-flight:

  • First, you calculate range-to-target with a Track Illuminator Laser developed by Raytheon (NYSE:RTN).
  • Then you use a Beacon Illuminator Laser manufactured by Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) to measure atmospheric turbulence along the path the kill beam will follow.
  • Next, you crunch all the data gathered from the first two lasers and use it to modify the aim and form of the kill beam, based on range and atmospheric turbulence.
  • Then, and only then, do you finally get to "click" the fire button on your High Energy Laser, also manufactured by Northrop, to blast the target.

Speaking of which, the press release focused on this last step, describing the successful test of a "surrogate" High Energy Laser shooting at a "missile-shaped target" painted on the side of an Air Force KC-135. ("Why a surrogate?" you ask? I'm betting it's because the KC-135's crew wouldn't have appreciated getting shot at with the real thing.)

As for what all of this has to do with investing -- the answer is that, as we discussed back in June, Congress is trying to slash the ABL team's annual budget by 30% to 40%. Successful tests such as the one Lockheed described Friday give the team ammunition (pardon the pun) to argue for fuller funding (in the best scenario) and against eliminating the program entirely when a new administration enters the White House in 17 months. Half a billion dollars may not be "real money" anymore, but I'm guessing the four defense contractors named above still want it to keep rolling in.

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