Making 'death ray' a reality Laser: Lockheed Martin, Boeing and TRW Corp. have been chosen by the Air Force to create an airborne laser weapon for use against ballistic missiles like the Scud.

November 15, 1996|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The drawing shows an unmanned combat plane shooting at missiles, incoming fighters and planes on the ground -- not with missiles of its own, but with high-powered laser beams.

This is not the cover of a science fiction thriller. It's an illustration in "New World Vistas," the Air Force's handbook for where it sees itself going in the 21st century.

With this week's award of a $1.1 billion contract to build the airborne laser, the Air Force is putting dollars behind its sense of the future. Air Force Secretary Sheila E. Widnall has said that the airborne laser could be as revolutionary for warfare as gunpowder and the atomic bomb.

The companies selected to create the prototype -- Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and TRW Corp. -- all pay homage to the sense that their work has historic significance.

But when pressed to describe just how far they think they can push laser technology, to say whether fighter planes, tanks or even soldiers will one day be equipped with deadly light guns, company officials quickly grow cautious.

"We're focused on the principal goal here," said Michael F. Weisbach, Boeing's airborne laser project manager. The principal goal is to put a laser on a 747 and use it to knock a Scud missile back onto its launch pad.

If the weapon works, the Air Force plans to order seven after 2003 for a total program cost of almost $6 billion. Even skeptics generally agree that the money is well spent, because the military currently has no other effective way of stopping ballistic missiles such as the Scud.

As the system is developed over the next six years, scientists may be able to make it smaller and put it onto smaller aircraft.

"But right now it would be a big stretch to suggest that you could get down to fighter aircraft," said John Waypa, program manager for laser-builder TRW.

Even so, Weisbach added, "you look at it and think, 'Well, this has got to be able to do some of these other missions.' "

The Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, which will control the airborne laser when it reaches the deployment stage in 2003, has asked the three companies to consider four other uses for the weapon:

Imaging and surveillance.

Suppression of enemy air defense systems.

Defense against cruise missiles.

Protection of high-value assets.

Those are modest goals, compared with the Star Trek-inspired scenarios that come to mind at the prospect of laser warfare. But they pose great technical challenges.

The airborne laser cannot work through clouds. It's designed for high altitudes. That makes low-flying cruise missiles impossible targets -- unless it's a cloudless day.

"If there are no clouds, you bet it's capable of doing a cruise missile job," Weisbach said.

And could it shoot targets besides missiles?

"A Scud -- a theater ballistic missile -- is one of the hardest targets. They're big stainless steel tanks. We can get through that. That means other targets at high altitude are going to be a piece of cake," Weisbach said.

Low altitude remains too much of an unknown. There is too much distortion in the atmosphere to use the airborne laser system below about 30,000 feet.

And some experts question whether the chemical laser could be effective on other targets.

"Ballistic missiles are always on the verge of spontaneously blowing up anyway," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. "Basically, what they are trying to do is poke a hole in the fuel tank."

Pike points out that TRW has made this type of chemical laser only in the kilowatt range, and it will need a megawatt of power just to kill a Scud. "They've got to go from enough power to power your kitchen to enough power to power a small town," he said.

Piercing the armor on a tank would take considerably more juice. "You could probably come up with a laser able to do damage to a tank or ship, but the thing would be about the size of the Empire State Building," Pike said.

Nonetheless, Pike conceded that successfully developing the airborne laser would amount to "sort of a third era of weaponry."

The first era -- sticks, swords -- involved direct kinetic force.

The second era -- guns, cannons -- involved indirect kinetic force, meaning you could pound someone from a distance.

Lasers are a completely new concept: directed energy.

The question, Pike said, is whether lasers will prove to be like swords, with only a few specific uses, or like guns, able to hit a full range of targets.

"My gut hunch is it's going to be a lot more like swords," he said. "And if you remember the Indiana Jones movie, you remember what happens when anybody with a sword fights somebody with a gun."

Whether or not the airborne laser proves immediately practical for any but the most specialized of missions, defense analyst Brett Lambert of DFI International says he counts it as a true military turning point.

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