06/07/00- Updated 11:14 PM ET

Army's new high-tech laser is right on target

By Andrea Stone, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - In what is being called a milestone in the infant field of laser warfare, the Army said Wednesday that it has shot down a rocket using a high-energy laser.

In its first live warhead test, the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) system intercepted and destroyed an armed Russian-made Katyusha rocket within seconds of its launch at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., Tuesday. The system detected the 10-foot-long, 5-inch-diameter rocket with its radar before shooting it down at the speed of light.

''We've just turned science fiction into reality,'' said Lt. Gen. John Costello, commander of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, which developed the laser with the Israeli defense ministry and defense contractor TRW Corp.

If future tests go well, the Army is expected to hand over the system to Israel within the next year. It would be positioned along Israel's northern border with Lebanon to protect against Katyusha and other short-range rocket attacks.

Although the system was tailored with Israel's unique security needs in mind, Costello said the technology has ''the potential to play a significant role in defending U.S. national security interests worldwide.''

The U.S. military has no defensive weapons system capable of protecting troops from short-range rocket attacks. It hopes to adapt the THEL system for use in shielding peacekeeping forces abroad.

''In the past, the only prayer we had was jumping in a foxhole and praying,'' said Jerry Wilson, THEL's program manager. ''This gives the war fighter a chance to defeat that threat.''

But John Pike, a weapons analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said THEL has no foreseeable applications for U.S. forces.

''This is for the extremely specific problem of the Hezbollah firing artillery rockets across the northern border of Israel,'' he said, noting Katyushas have a range of just 12 miles. ''We don't have anyone firing these at us. We'd never let anybody get that close.''

The Air Force is working on what will likely be the U.S. military's first high-energy weapon, the Airborne Laser. The 747-mounted airborne laser is being designed to shoot down SCUD ballistic missiles like those used in the Gulf War. The system's deployment is expected within 10 years.

Military researchers continue to work on space-based lasers, a legacy of President Reagan's ''star wars'' initiative. However, the system envisioned by the Clinton administration to protect against ballistic warheads would employ interceptor missiles, not lasers.

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