Army to test world's first combat laser

News Staff Writer

HUNTSVILLE — The Army will soon try to zap and destroy a small rocket in Star Wars fashion with what could become the world's first combat laser system.

Success of the Tactical High Energy Laser prototype could revolutionize the way battles are fought, says the man who heads up the program for the Army.

In the test, a laser will try to destroy a Katyusha rocket as it streaks at hundreds of miles an hour over the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. That will take place in the next six to eight weeks, said Gerald Wilson, manager of the program at the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville.

"The single rocket shootdown is the most critical because it will once and for all show that we've been able to design and develop ... a bona fide high-powered laser system," Wilson said.

The laser is a joint project between the United States and Israel, which wants to use the system to defend its northern borders against the 122mm Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah guerrillas based in southern Lebanon.

About a dozen people work — most of them part time — on the project in Huntsville. That includes some local contractors that provide engineering support for the Army.

THEL is a chemical laser system that includes command, control, communications and intelligence systems, radar and a laser pointer/tracker. It produces laser beams by mixing chemicals to produce intense heat and light. The system funnels off the heat and captures the light to beam it toward a target.

The beam must stay on the target for a short time — exactly how long is classified information — to destroy it, Wilson said.

"What we do is put somewhere close to 10,000 times the surface temperature of the sun on these particular rockets or targets, and not too many substances known by mankind can withstand that," he said.

The laser system consists of a half dozen cargo-like trailers of various sizes that can be transported by ship, airplane, or tractor trailer rigs. The laser-beam director, which resembles a squatty telescope atop an 8-foot cube, can swivel to track its targets.

THEL is designed to shoot for up to 60 shots without reloading, according to a publication from prime contractor TRW Inc., which built the prototype in California.

Because of its ability to fire multiple shots, the Army hopes to get the cost per shot at a relatively inexpensive $3,000 or under, Wilson said. That compares to tens of thousands of dollars to fire just one missile, he said.

For close-in fighting

THEL is being developed primarily for close-in fighting where there is little or no warning that a small rocket or artillery shell has been fired at troops. It allows speed-of-light — 186,000 miles per second — interception of an enemy rocket or artillery mortar. And the beam can be moved around until it hits its target.

Wilson said the system offers a chance to protect troops in situations where for years their only defense "was basically jumping in the fox hole and start praying."

If the test is successful, it will be followed by other tests against multiple rockets fired from various angles and ranges, Wilson said. If those tests are successful, the system will be shipped to Israel in September for further testing, he said.

Neither the United States nor Israel has committed to buying THEL systems.

The Pentagon has not requested any funding for THEL in its 2001 budget, according to a story last week in Jane's Defense Weekly. But that story quoted unnamed sources as saying they hope to persuade Congress to allocate funding for the joint U.S.-Israel program should the tests succeed.

The Air Force already is developing a laser mounted on an airplane that can shoot down missiles. And the Ballistic Missile Defense Command is working on a space-based laser that can shoot down enemy missiles soon after they are launched.

Huntsville is on a short list to land a facility that would integrate and test the more than $2 billion-space based program.

THEL won't end the need for defensive missiles because lasers have their limitations, Wilson said. Although he would not discuss what those limitations are, he said poor weather is one thing that hampers lasers.

The military has been working on laser technology for more than 20 years with a large high-energy laser it built in New Mexico. The Army used that laser to shoot down a short-range rocket in February 1996.

Based on the success of that joint project between the United States and Israel, the two nations signed the agreement in 1996 to develop the mobile THEL prototype.

$89 million contract

TRW was awarded an $89 million contract — two thirds from the United States and the rest from Israel — to build a system using subcontractors from both countries. TRW later was given a $42 million contract to add field testing to the prototype system.

Since then, the program has a had a series of delays and cost overruns.

The program is about a year behind schedule and has cost $250 million so far, Wilson said. Last year the United States and Israel renegotiated TRW's contract so the company pays for half the cost overruns, with the two governments splitting the other half. Once there is a successful test, TRW will begin paying 25 percent of cost overruns, with the two nations cov­ ering the rest.

TRW officials declined an interview for this story.

John Pike, policy analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, said he believes there may be no real use for such a laser system.

Since Israel and the United States began discussing the project some six years ago, a peace has been reached in the region and there is not much need for the program, he said. "At this point, I think it is a solution in search of a problem," he said.

But Jane's Defense Weekly said Israeli officials are eager to complete the THEL program and deploy the system in the next few months. Israel's prime minister has pledged to remove troops from southern Lebanon by July, and Israeli military commanders expect an increase in attacks on their positions.

© 2000 The Birmingham News