Dawn of Laser Weapons Draws Near
This week's test in New Mexico shows growing potential of long-sought weapons.
Before the end of the week, technicians at a United States Army facility in the New Mexico desert plan to ignite a blend of exotic fuels inside a furnace akin to a rocket engine. The spectacular light energy in the inferno will be harnessed by a series of mirrors, molded by lenses into a narrow beam, and shot into the pre-dawn sky.Skip to next paragraph
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If all goes well, two jolts from the nation's most powerful laser will strike an aging US military satellite 260 miles above the earth.
Officials claim the test is defensive - and not aimed at creating a satellite killer that would shatter the neutrality of space and could trigger a new global arms race. But the test does focus fresh attention on the Pentagon's three-decade quest for lasers that can destroy targets on earth, in the sky, and in space.
Once ridiculed and doubted, such lasers are now seen as having growing promise by many scientists and defense experts.
And if successful, these laser weapon systems could dramatically alter the nature of warfare around the world.
Observers agree that major technical and political problems could still derail the programs, conceding that after tens of billions of dollars in research, no laser weapon is operational. But recent advances in lasers, optics, and computers, they say, make it likely that systems capable of destroying short- and intermediate-range rockets shortly after takeoff could enter the US arsenal in the next decade.
"The technology is almost certainly there," says Chris Hillman of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank. "People who know seem convinced that within years, not decades, we are going to be able to do these things and do them fairly well."
"Lasers will be high payoff in the future," says Tom Meyer, deputy director of defense programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who headed laser research in former President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known as "Star Wars."
The Pentagon's laser programs enjoy strong support among congressional Republicans. In 1995, they ended a Democrat-imposed ban on firing the New Mexico-based laser - Mid-Infrared Chemical Laser, or MIRACL - at satellites. Republicans were persuaded to allow the tests, which are aimed at learning if the low-power lasers now operated by up to 30 nations could "blind" the sensors of the satellites that the US military depends on. This week's planned test has been twice delayed. It will be canceled if not held by Thursday, because the target satellite will move out of range. But the test will certainly occur in the near future.
And some GOP leaders, including Senate Majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, are pushing for a massive hike in funds for creation of a space-based antimissile laser.
The military's laser programs are outgrowths of work than began in the 1970s and received a massive boost in the 1980s under SDI, Reagan's plan to develop a space-based shield against nuclear-missile attack.
After Gulf War, a shift in focus
In the wake of the Iraqi Scud missile attacks of the 1991 Gulf War, SDI was gutted by Presidents Bush and Clinton. They shifted resources to efforts to protect US forces in the field from short- and intermediate-range rockets. Two of these theater-missile-defense projects involve lasers.
One is an $89 million effort by the Army and the Israeli government to develop a tank-mounted system that could destroy the short-range rockets frequently fired into northern Israel by guerrillas in southern Lebanon.
The contractor, Ohio-based TRW, is scheduled to begin testing a mobile prototype next spring. A milestone was reached in February, when TRW used MIRACL and other technologies to track and destroy two rockets in flight.
Work is also progressing on the Air Force's Airborne Laser (ABL) program. It calls for equipping seven Boeing 747s with lasers capable of destroying intermediate-range missiles seconds after launch. The planes would fly above the clouds and hit missiles up to 450 miles away. The fleet will cost an estimated $11 billion to build and operate for 20 years.
Heat from the laser would detonate a missile's fuel or weaken its body until it shattered under high-speed stress. Hit in the "boost phase," the debris and warheads from the rockets would fall back on enemy territory.