News

Friday, December 10, 1999

Ray Guns Warm Up in N.M.

By John J. Lumpkin
Journal Staff Writer
The first high-power laser weapons soon will begin to move out of laboratories and onto military test ranges -- putting the military a big step closer to fielding Buck Rogers ray guns in combat.
Low-power lasers have long been used as target designators -- point a beam of light at a target, and a missile will home in on the laser point.
But lasers powerful enough to actually "kill" targets -- incoming rockets and missiles, for now -- haven't seen action.
"My feeling is we're looking at a new era in which we'll be able to field an operational laser weapon," said Rich Garcia, a spokesman for the Air Force Research Laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base.
Next year, perhaps as early as February, a demonstration model of the short-range Tactical High Energy Laser will try to shoot down an incoming artillery rocket at the Army's White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico.
The much larger Airborne Laser, managed from Kirtland, will have its first shot at a long-range target missile off the coast of California in 2002 or 2003.
To John Pike, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., the upcoming live-fire tests mean it's almost "crunch time" for the latest generation of laser weapons.
"We'll find out if this generation of stuff really works," Pike said. "Five years from now, there's a good possibility we're going to have some real stuff (on the battlefield). It's equally possible we'll have found out this is actually a lot harder than it looked."
While laboratory programs like the Airborne Laser generate "success-story press releases with monotonous regularity," laser programs likely will face problems when they move closer to battlefield situations, he predicted.
"It's a lot easier to have a success in the lab than it is to have a success in the field," he said. "They're coming up on crunch time. They have no particular way of anticipating how big their problems may be."
Between the Air Force labs at Kirtland and the Army's High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility -- affectionately called "Hell-Staff" -- at White Sands, New Mexico is ray-gun central.
The Air Force's less-mature space-based laser program is also expected to move its headquarters to Kirtland soon.
An earlier generation of laser prototypes built under "Star Wars" and other programs in the 1970s and '80s met with limited success.
The Airborne Laser Lab, a modified air tanker once based at Kirtland, shot down a few short-range missiles and a drone before being retired to a museum.
But technological advances, giving lasers more power and longer ranges, have made battlefield models much more likely, officials say.
Why lasers? They're fast -- the invisible beam moves at the speed of light, allowing for nearly instantaneous corrections if it is off-target.
Although expensive to develop, the fuel is relatively cheap. A single shot from the Airborne Laser will cost $10,000 in spent fuel. Interceptor missiles with comparable missions cost $1 million or more.
Because lasers are untested and fragile, Pike doesn't expect them to supplant traditional weapons anytime soon. Instead, they will only do things that missile-and-gun systems can't, like tactical laser shooting at artillery rockets or the Airborne Laser hitting missiles just after their launch.
Such weapons are not without controversy, or expense. Human-rights groups oppose low-power battle lasers capable of blinding people.
The tactical laser program also faced difficulty when contractor TRW Inc. threatened to quit the project over funding issues this summer. The matter was resolved when the U.S. government agreed to provide more money.
A $177 million tactical laser demonstrator model is being built for the government of Israel. The goal is to build a laser that can shoot down short-range artillery rockets, notably the Katyusha rockets launched by Hezbollah forces from southern Lebanon into towns in northern Israel.
The Clinton administration and then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres established the program in 1996, not long after a test laser similar to tactical lasers shot down a short-range rocket in flight at White Sands. The U.S. Army is also considering buying mobile versions of the laser.
The Tactical High Energy Laser "has the potential to be a revolutionary addition to the battlefield of the future," said Lt. Gen. John Costello, chief of Army Space and Missile Defense Command.
The motto of the Airborne Laser, meanwhile, is "Peace through Light." It's built to fry long-range ballistic missiles like the Iraqi Scud.
The program proposes to mount a multi-megawatt laser cannon on a Boeing 747. In a conflict, two Airborne Laser planes would circle friendly territory, shooting at missiles across enemy lines as they rose from their launchers during their "boost phase" -- while they are still burning fuel. A "kill" would drop the missile debris and the contents of its warhead back on its launchers.
The Airborne Laser's range is classified, but it exceeds 215 miles, said Air Force Lt. Col. Joel Richard Owens. The program has been criticized because some missiles have ranges far greater than that.
The program is to cost $11 billion for the research, construction and maintenance of a fleet of seven of the aircraft. If funding isn't cut, Owens says three planes could be operating by 2007, and the full fleet by 2009.