DATE=6/7/2000 TYPE=CORRESPONDENT REPORT TITLE=U-S / ISRAEL LASER (L-ONLY) NUMBER=2-263270 BYLINE=JIM RANDLE DATELINE=PENTAGON CONTENT= VOICED AT: INTRO: U-S Army officials say they have shot down a missile with a laser beam, a major technical step toward a system to protect northern Israel from rockets fired by guerilla groups. V-O-A's Jim Randle reports. TEXT: It's called the Tactical High Energy Laser, and U-S Army officials say the system tracked and destroyed a single rocket during a test (Tuesday) in the western American desert. The target was a Soviet-designed short range Katyusha rocket of the type that guerrilla forces have been firing into Israel for years. Such missiles travel a few kilometers and are armed with small conventional explosive warheads. Experts say an invisible laser beam, traveling at the speed of light, struck the missile. The powerful light's searing heat blew it apart. The system is being developed and funded jointly by the United States and Israel. The test was the first in a series that must be completed before the laser -- which fills several large trucks -- is ready to deploy. U-S officials say the system could be ready within two years. Program manager Jerry Wilson says engineers must still figure out how to fire at multiple targets. He says another challenge is to make the complex system robust enough to handle the mud and bumps of a battlefield, and simple enough that soldiers -- not scientists -- can operate it. /// Wilson Act /// It's really not rocket science, this system, because of the critical engagement timelines, is almost automated. /// End Act /// Mr. Wilson says computers will help soldiers follow targets and monitor the complex systems needed to generate the powerful beam of light. Missile expert John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists says Tuesday's successful test is a "major step forward in developing battlefield lasers," which have been under development for 25 years. But he says it will be much harder to shoot down long- range ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons and travel much higher, faster and farther. /// Pike Act /// The Katyusha you are shooting at a range of only a few kilometers. An intercontinental ballistic missile is going to be traveling over 20- thousand kilometers per hour, you are engaging it at ranges of many hundreds or maybe several thousands of kilometers, so the national missile defense -- intercepting long-range missile -- is the hardest problem. Shooting one of these Katyusha is basically the easiest problem in missile defense. /// End Act /// Meantime, the U-S Air Force is working on an airborne laser designed to stop medium-range ballistic missiles shortly after they are launched. But that far more powerful and complex laser is not scheduled to be ready to deploy for another seven years. /// Rest Opt /// The development comes as the United States is also working on a national missile defense system to protect all 50 U-S states. The program is politically popular, but technically unproven. It uses missiles - - rather than light beams -- to strike warheads headed for the American heartland. The proposal has drawn strong protests from Russia and China, and strong support from the Republican majority in the U-S Congress. (Signed) NEB/JR/JP 07-Jun-2000 14:48 PM EDT (07-Jun-2000 1848 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .