By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON, June 20 The Airborne Laser, a modified Boeing Co. (BA.N) 747 designed to be part of a U.S. missile-defense shield, landed outside Washington on Wednesday, aiming to win hearts, minds and dollars in Capitol Hill budget battles.
The aircraft, making its first trip to the Washington area, is to be shown off to lawmakers, Pentagon officials and the media Thursday at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland.
"This is an opportunity to educate senior leaders," said Air Force Col. John Daniels, the government's program manager. "We certainly want to make sure that folks understand that this thing is real."
The project has been one of the big losers so far as President Bush's fiscal 2008 defense spending plan moves through Congress. Instead, Democrats controlling the legislature have urged the Pentagon to focus on less futuristic efforts.
Prime contractor Boeing and its partners have warned that a House of Representatives plan to slash $250 million from the Pentagon's $549 million budget request for the Airborne Laser would cripple the program.
The Washington trip was possible because an aerial target used to simulate a ballistic missile in early flight testing was unavailable this week, Daniels said in a telephone interview with Reuters.
The target, an Air Force KC-135 aerial refueling tanker nicknamed Big Crow, was called off to support a U.S. Navy operation, he said.
The Airborne Laser is to carry a high-energy chemical oxygen iodine laser to fire an energy beam at a ballistic missile during its "boost phase," shortly after takeoff when it is most vulnerable to attack.
Flight and ground testing of the aircraft is done at Edwards Air Force Base, California, to which the aircraft is to return Thursday night, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said. The laser is to be installed on the aircraft later this year in preparation for a crucial demonstration of the system scheduled for mid-2009 using a mock enemy ballistic missile.
The test has been delayed several times since Boeing in 1996 won the prime contract, now valued at $3.8 billion.
Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC.N) is building the high-energy laser and Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT.N) provides the aircraft's beam control and fire control systems.
((Editing by Tim Dobbyn; e-mail:email@example.com; telephone: 202-898-8402, firstname.lastname@example.org)) Keywords: BOEING LASER/
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