Laser shoots down rocket for first time

By Jim Wolf Reuters - June 7, 2000

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A powerful laser developed jointly by the United States and Israel has shot down a rocket in a breakthrough test of defense technology, the Army said Wednesday.

The test was the first in a series before the high-energy laser, designed by a team led by TRW Corp., is to be handed over to Israel to help protect its northern border with Lebanon against short-range rocket attack.

"We've just turned science fiction into reality," Lt. Gen. John Costello, head of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said in a statement released by his headquarters in Huntsville, Alabama.

He said the shoot-down, Tuesday at the Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, showed "directed energy" weapons systems like lasers "have the potential to play a significant role in defending U.S. national security interests worldwide."

Israel's deployment of the weapon would mark the world's first of an anti-rocket laser. The United States, which says it has no immediate plan to use it, is to ship the system to Israel by next October after tests against multiple rocket launches.

The capability to shoot down a target with an experimental airborne laser was first demonstrated by the United States in the late 1970s, said John Pike, director of the space policy project at the Federation of American Scientists.

A laser -- short for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation -- is an intense, highly directed beam of energy. It works like focusing the sun's rays through a magnifying glass to start a fire.

The ground-based, short-range, air defense system, which cost $186 million to develop, is formally known as the Tactical High Energy Laser/Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrator (THEL/ACTD).

For the first test of THEL's defensive capabilities, a single Katyusha rocket carrying a high-explosive warhead was fired from a rocket launcher inside the test range.

Seconds later, the laser system, located several miles away, detected the launch with its Israeli-built fire control radar, tracked the streaking target and locked on to it with its high-energy beam.

"Within seconds, the 10-foot-long, 5-inch diameter rocket exploded," TRW said. "Basically, it fries the explosive in the warhead until it explodes harmlessly in the air," added Thomas Romesser, deputy general manager for laser programs at TRW's Space & Laser Programs Division in Redondo Beach, California.

Highly focused energy can cross great distances at the speed of light with minimal loss of intensity. Even a moving target may be heated to temperatures like those on the surface of the sun, Romesser said in a telephone interview.

Theoretically, such a beam could knock out missiles at distances up to thousands of miles . That was the idea behind the space-based missile defense shield like the "Star Wars" system first suggested by President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983.

Major Gen. Isaac Ben-Israel of the Israeli Ministry of Defense was quoted by TRW as saying THEL had taken "the crucial first step to help protect the communities along our northern border against the kind of devastating rocket attacks we've suffered recently."

THEL is a "transportable" system contained in several truck-sized shipping containers. The system stems in part from a commitment made in April 1996 by President Clinton to then Prime Minister of Israel Shimon Peres to aid Israel in developing a defense against Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah guerrillas from southern Lebanon.

Clinton is due to decide by November whether to begin deploying a ground-based national missile defense against what U.S. intelligence says are potential threats from countries like North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Lasers are not due to play any role in the initial phase of any such deployment. Instead, the targets would be smashed by "kill vehicles" atop ground-based interceptor missiles.

The U.S. Air Forces is already studying the feasibility of weaving lasers into layered defenses against "theater" ballistic missiles. Eventually, the technology could play a role in the controversial U.S. plan to build a shield against limited strategic missile attack, U.S. military officers say.

The Air Force is developing an airborne laser system for use on its 747-400F aircraft that could become part of a future "theater," or regional, missile defense, designed to be operational by 2007.