Arms at the speed of light Pentagon to choose team to develop airborne laser

'New dimension to warfare'

Lockheed Martin, Rockwell, Raytheon hope to make weapon

November 10, 1996|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Even the Air Force can't resist going "Star Trek" over its new weapons system.

"It's in my sights, Scotty. Prepare photon torpedoes!" is the giddy tag line to an otherwise Spockish newsletter from the military lab working on the weapon.

The analogy is pretty hard to resist when it comes to the airborne laser.

Mounted in a turret on the nose of a 747, the airborne laser would fire a burst of light at a Scud missile just as it broke through the clouds and knock the warhead back down on Saddam Hussein or whoever sent it up.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon will choose from two teams of companies for a billion-dollar, five-year sweepstakes to prove that the weapon can be built.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., partnered with Boeing Corp. and TRW, is vying for the chance to create a weapon military officials say could be as revolutionary as gunpowder.

"The speed of light just adds a new dimension to warfare," said Bob Callahan, the airborne laser program manager for Lockheed Martin.

There are plenty of skeptics. The program has conceptual links to the Strategic Defense Initiative research of the 1980s, which shot down huge piles of cash but little else.

"It's real easy to spend a lot of money and wind up at the same position where you started: that the best way to prevent someone blowing us up is to be able to blow them up in return," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists.

But doubt is cheap, and the airborne laser program has both healthy funding and political support. Both Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman have been zealous promoters of the project, with Widnall saying it will make "a major contribution" to defense.

Congress ordered the military to come up with some way of defeating tactical theater ballistic missiles after Hussein's Scuds killed U.S. soldiers during the Persian Gulf war. At least 22 nations have accumulated 10,000 such missiles, posing regional threats that America's military has little effective way of stopping.

The airborne laser sounds like a perfect solution.

The Air Force has asked for a weapon with a range of about 300 miles, so the plane bearing it could stay in friendly airspace and zap from a distance.

It would use a low-powered laser to pinpoint and lock onto a missile in its boost phase, which means it is still rising over the site where it was launched. Then a flash of infrared light from a megawatt chemical laser would blast the missile out of the sky.

The chemical laser uses ordinary materials: highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide reacts with chlorine gas to make excited oxygen molecules, which are mixed in a nozzle with iodine gas. The resulting excited iodine gives off photons, or light energy, much like neon gives off light in the presence of an electrical current.

Each 747 would carry about 30,000 pounds of chemicals, enough for "many, many" laser shots, said Bob Bradford, TRW's program manager. The actual number of potential shots is classified. But given the cheap nature of the chemicals, each firing would cost only a few thousand dollars -- "dramatically less expensive than shooting a missile," Bradford said.

The trickiest part may be guiding the laser, which is Lockheed Martin's portion of the work. Just as the atmosphere makes stars twinkle, it also causes flutter and deviation in a long-distance laser beam.

Lockheed Martin is working with a deformable mirror that can change shape thousands of times a second to keep the beam on track.

Even with that problem solved, though, Pike points out that the laser's range of 300 miles wouldn't be far enough to hit a missile launched from deep inside Iraq or North Korea. Also, the system couldn't fire through high cloud cover.

But Neil Hahn, Lockheed's marketer for the system, says the companies are following performance guidelines set out by the Air Force.

Each element of the system has been successfully tested, much of it at the Phillips Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

The purpose of the contract that will be awarded this week is to put all the elements together into a prototype.

The Lockheed Martin/Boeing/TRW team -- it calls itself Team ABL -- is competing against a partnership of Rockwell International Corp., Raytheon E-Systems and Hughes Aircraft Co. for the $1 billion, five-year job. The program ultimately could be worth about $5 billion.

Boeing, the administrative leader of Team ABL, has launched a huge advertising blitz in recent weeks, filling page after page in trade magazines with plaudits for its entry in the contest.

Analysts generally give that team the edge in the competition. Not only is Boeing a master at integrating high-tech systems into its 747s and Lockheed Martin a longtime leader in laser optics, but TRW has 20 years of history in laser development.

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