Center for Strategic Communication

If your idea of the military’s future involves a laser cannon and a giant, hydrogen-powered drone, Danger Room has some bad news for you. Despite the best efforts of the Missile Defense Agency and its allies in the House of Representatives, the Pentagon will not be giving Boeing a multi-million dollar contract to equip its king-sized, experimental “Phantom Eye” unmanned aerial vehicle with a directed energy weapon. Not if the Senate’s moneymen have anything to say about it.

In its markup of next year’s defense budget, the committee flagged an odd request from the Missile Defense Agency: $44.5 million dollars for a new “directed energy research program” — mil-speak for laser weapon development. MDA has a long, ignoble history of funding such ray gun efforts. But this ray gun seemed more ignoble than most.

Not only ”are currently no less than five separate directed energy science and technology programs ongoing in the Department of Defense, none of which have clearly defined and funded transition plans into programs of record,” the senators noted, but “the committee now understands that the Missile Defense Agency intends to award a noncompetitive, sole-source contract” for the energy weapon. In other words, the agency was on the verge of a no-bid deal for a flying ray gun. Which, in these times of relative budgetary austerity, did not please the senators at all.

The committee softened the blow to the MDA. The agency is getting a $500 million budget increase, which includes new missile interceptors and radars. But should the full Senate back the committee and kill the laser-strapped Phantom Eye, it would cap an awful month for the anti-missile shop. In early July, the Pentagon’s inspector general revealed MDA chief Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly to be one of the Defense Department’s biggest jerks, a bully who routinely belittled and verbally abused his staff. The good vibes weren’t exactly increased when MDA executive director John James Jr. was forced to warn his staff to stop “accessing websites, or transmitting messages, containing pornographic or sexually explicit images.” And now: no massive, sky-riding lasers.

As it happens, it wasn’t long ago that the U.S. military actually had a flying missile-zapper: a tricked-out 747 with a ray gun attached — which proved to be better at evading the budgetary axe than it was at stopping incoming missiles.

The so-called Airborne Laser Test Bed, or ALTB, was supposed to be — in the words of a former Missile Defense Agency chief — America’s “first lightsaber.” Unfortunately, the ALTB didn’t work very well, despite 16 years of effort and billions of dollars devoted to it. In fight tests, the ALTB only managed to fry a single missile. Other targets emerged unscathed. Ellen Tauscher, now the State Department’s senior-most arms control official, derided the long-overdue $4 billion program as “the definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over despite failing each time.” Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates pared the program way back. And in February, the Missile Defense Agency announced the last flight of the flying lightsaber. The ALTB was dispatched to the Air Force’s Arizona “boneyard” for dead planes.

A few months later, however, it looked like the ghost of the ALTB might continue to haunt the military. The House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces panel pushed for $75 million “to preserve the skilled workforce that was involved in the Airborne Laser Test Bed program and to accelerate experimentation with next generation directed energy system development.” Odder still, the subcommittee ordered the experimentation to include the “planned testing of the Phantom Eye system.”

That’s the experimental, 150 foot-wide hydrogen-powered drone that’s eventually stay aloft for four days straight at a height of 65,000 feet. The Boeing aircraft had its first flight in June, soaring at a relatively-modest 4,000 feet for 28 minutes. Before the subcommittee’s note, no one had publicly mentioned the Phantom Eye as any kind of a weapon.

Privately, however, there were different plans. That no-bid, laser weapon contract just blocked by the Senate Appropriations Committee? It was for the “integration of the yet-to-be-developed directed energy capability onto a high altitude long endurance platform that itself is currently under development.” In other words: the Phantom Eye — outfitted with a laser weapon that doesn’t even exist yet.

That sounds like insanity to the Senate moneymen. “The Committee questions both the operational relevance of this scientific program,” it stated, “as well as the overall acquisition strategy during times of fiscal restraint.” That puts one of the military’s most dysfunctional agencies on notice against resurrecting an unfeasible laser and stitching it, like Frankenstein’s monster, to an experimental drone. But the history of these so-called flying lightsabers suggests that it might come back from the dead — again.