To begin, I'll take a look at how we got where we are now.
We're past the 100 year mark in aviation, and the same with military aviation. USAF, USN, USMC, etc.
Military aviation by itself was an amazing leap upward and onward in war-mongering. Instead of being limited to watching your enemy with spyglasses from a hill, you could now fly over the enemy and observe, even photograph his location, troop placement, headquarters, direct artillery...
photo courtesy BBC
...and eventually drop bombs. This was terrorizing to the guy on the ground. But amazing to the guy in command of the planes! And as time went on, bomb sights were invented that made the bombs more accurate. And airframes grew in strength, size and power to deliver bigger bombs more accurately. Laser-guided bombs, and eventually satellite space GPS wizardry would deliver bombs from such heights and distances that enemy ground targets only knew they were being bombed... when the bombs began to hit. No jet noises, no warning, nothing. This new control over teh battlefield was amazing and whoever owned the sky, would win the battle or even the war.
Air-to-air combat has undergone similar incredible growth. From the first rifle being leveled at another aviator at close range, to machine guns with rotor interrupters, to harmonized Gatling guns, getting close to the enemy meant more damage per swoop and swerve. Radar and heat-seeking missiles meant I only need to kind of know where you are, and you were killable when only a speck in the sky. Radars and computers turned that speck in the sky into a blip with targeting and intercepting information all available to the pilot- from 20 miles away. Up to one hundred miles away in some cases. Again, each advance gave one side an amazing advantage over their enemy, and it was good...
I'm not even going to get into radars, AESA radars, ECM jamming, Infra-red Search and Track... it's all so very, very advanced and complicated.
It has gotten to a point where pilots are pushed to their 9g limit, airplanes can't go any faster without melting in the air, they can't carry any more missiles without stalling out, and stealth... ECM... it's all maxed out.
Think about it. The arguments about which jet is best have become moot. Every fighter is maxed out for its role. Is the Su-35 or MiG-29 or MiG-31 REALLY any better than the F-15C, F-22A or Typhoon? No, they are not. Oh, their performance envelopes bulge in different places, but in a mix, it's all up to the pilots nowadays who's going to land on a runway, and who's going to land in a parachute harness.
But someone, in some government cubicle, has figured out how to bend it all around again, as the cry went out: It's time for new tech.
Is it smarter, faster missiles? Well, there are a few projects being worked on. The Cuda missile for the F-35. The new AA-3 for the JASDF. But no, that's not it.
The answer lay in the biggest, most spectacular, undersold, military aviation flops in history...
The Boeing YAL-1.
|photo courtesy Boeing.com|
The YAL-1 was a Boeing 747 whose whole capacity was filled with lasers, lasers fuel, laser things and other laser stuff. It was meant to orbit off a country's coast and shoot down ballistic missiles as they lifted off their launch pads before they even had a chance to get up high or come back down on targets of US interest with their tricky tricks like going hypersonic, or dispensing supersonic cluster munitions, etc.
The promise was amazing. Like all technological wonders (pay attention here, new tech and F-35 critics) it had hurtles and failures. But finally in the mid-90s, it began dropping simulated and real ballistic missiles out of the sky like nobody's business.
And just as they got it working, they, the Department of Defense, dropped it.
Seriously? Dropped? Was this not too good to pass up? I mean, it was working! Why would they drop such a great weapon?
I'll tell ya why- because it WORKED. But it wasn't meant to be a final product. It was a test bed. A technology development test bed. It was never meant to be deployed in numbers.
Digress to an air show at Hill AFB about this time. An Air Force Colonel had a tent with tons of brochures and shirts and stuff about the YAL-1. I approached him. He was sold on the tech and the project, I could tell. But the exchange naturally turned to the project's cancellation. And it was then that I heard something that I wish I had paid more attention to:
This colonel didn't blink when I brought up the cancellation, instead, he gave me a Clint Eastwood squint, and said, "Well, don't worry. We'll be seeing lots more of this to come."
... or words to that effect. I tried to talk a little more, but he seemed to lose interest then (was that it?). So I did, too.
But that line, despite my best efforts to forget it, stuck in my head. In part 2 of this article, I'll explain why.
Come back for Part 2 SOON