Lockheed's team to build flying laser $1.1 billion contract to build prototype for sci-fi weapon

'Really an exciting day'

Boeing, TRW share in 5-year program for anti-missile beam

November 13, 1996|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The Air Force yesterday chose the team of Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and TRW Corp. to build a prototype airborne laser, a science fiction-come-true weapon that would zap enemy missiles with a burst of light.

The contract is worth $1.1 billion over a five-year period of testing and evaluating. If the weapon proves feasible, up to seven lasers could enter the national arsenal beginning in 2003 for a total value of almost $6 billion.

"This is really an exciting day," said Ron Andrews, vice president of the Advanced Technology Center at Lockheed Martin's Missiles and Space Sector in Sunnyvale, Calif. "It's exciting to think about the fact that this day will be remembered as the day this country launched a weapons system that will be truly revolutionary."

The partnership featuring Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, called Team ABL, beat out a rival confederation of Rockwell International Corp., Hughes Aircraft Co. and Raytheon E-Systems for the work.

While not in the same megamoney realm as the race to build the Joint Strike Fighter warplane, which will be narrowed to a field of two competitors Monday, the airborne-laser contract carries great technological mystique. Air Force Secretary Sheila E. Widnall has compared the laser to gunpowder and the Manhattan Project for its potential impact on warfare.

The companies involved also see the project opening new vistas in the marketplace, as lasers become more practical for other military uses.

"As these really wonderfully innovative people working on this program come up with additional ideas the system is going to get better, performance is going to go up, weight is going to go down, volume is going to go down," said Dick Hardy, vice president and general manager of Boeing's Military Airplanes Division. "The analogy is the computer revolution." The weapon involves putting a chemical laser in the nose of a Boeing 747. If an enemy launched, say, a Scud missile, the laser would knock it back onto the launcher with a split-second blast of infrared light. The laser is designed for a range of up to 300 miles, so the lumbering 747 could fire from the safety of friendly airspace.

Because the laser's energy comes from common chemicals -- hydrogen peroxide, chlorine and iodine -- each blast would cost a fraction of the million-dollar Patriot missiles now used to intercept Scuds and the like.

Congress directed the military to come up with some such answer to the tactical theater ballistic missile threat after Iraqi Scuds killed U.S. soldiers during the Persian Gulf war. Experts estimate that 22 countries have amassed more than 10,000 of these types of missiles, and there is no reliable way of stopping them.

Team ABL, working with the Phillips Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, says it has successfully tested all the elements of the laser system. TRW has built a kilowatt chemical laser, and says it can string units together to get the megawatt of power needed for the weapon.

Boeing is integrating the system into its 747, and Lockheed Martin's Missiles & Space Sector has the tricky job of guiding the laser to its target.

This involves creating a deformable mirror that adjusts thousands of times a second to keep the beam on track as it rips through the distorting layers of the atmosphere.

Given Team ABL's collective experience, especially TRW's status as the builder of the first high-energy chemical laser in 1973, the award came as little surprise.

"It would have been more of a surprise if it had gone the other way," analyst Paul Nisbet of JSA Research Inc. said.

Boeing, which had advertised its entry heavily and is technically the leader of Team ABL, actually faced a no-lose situation on the contract. Its pending purchase of Rockwell's defense business guaranteed that it would get the work, no matter who won.

Boeing's Hardy said yesterday that it would be "premature" to comment on whether the Rockwell laser experts will join Team ABL, but added that "the Boeing Co. has always made available to our customers all the resources that the company has."

The 4: 30 p.m. announcement was timed to come after the close of the stock market, but Lockheed Martin stock nonetheless had a good day. It gained $1.125 to close at $91.375. Boeing stock was down $1.25, at $91.75, and TRW shares fell $1 to $93.25.

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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