Thursday, October 28, 1999

Space Laser May Move to Kirtland

By John J. Lumpkin
Journal Staff Writer
A missile-defense space laser program born in the Star Wars era might move its management office to Kirtland Air Force Base from California, military officials said.
The Space-Based Laser program, still in early development stages, proposes to mount high-energy lasers on satellites orbiting the globe. They would shoot down long-range ballistic missiles fired at the United States, friendly nations or U.S. or Allied troops.
The purpose of the move would be to consolidate Air Force laser programs at Kirtland. The base already is home to the Airborne Laser program and an Air Force laboratory that studies lasers and other directed-energy weapons, said Ronea Alger, spokeswoman at Los Angeles Air Force Base, which currently is home to the program.
If the Air Force decides to make the move, it would take place next summer, Alger said. A few dozen jobs likely would transfer here, she said.
Various aspects of development, construction and ground testing of the Space-Based Laser would take place at labs and manufacturing sites around the country, but the program's management office would be at Kirtland, Alger said.
The idea for Space-Based Laser began in the late 1970s and was advanced during President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Interest in laser weapons as missile defense has increased as "rogue states" like North Korea expand their long-range missile capabilities.
Earlier this year, defense contractors Lockheed Martin, Boeing and TRW started a joint venture to determine if the Space-Based Laser program is technically feasible and affordable.
By 2008, the Defense Department hopes to conduct a demonstration of the weapon in orbit.
The Federation of American Scientists, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, says the United States plans to put a 20-satellite constellation of laser defense weapons in orbit.
It's unclear whether those weapons also would have the offensive capability to attack targets on the ground, but one Defense Department document posted on the federation's Web site says contractors are to investigate "the feasibility of non-(missile defense) missions" for the laser.
Related programs, like the Airborne Laser at Kirtland, also grew out of laser research in the 1970s and '80s. That program proposes to mount a laser cannon on a Boeing 747 that would shoot down incoming enemy missiles near their launch sites, preventing debris from falling on friendly areas.
As defensive weapons, space and airborne lasers would complement ground-based interceptor missiles being developed under the National Missile Defense program.
A National Missile Defense program interceptor shot down a target missile over the Pacific Ocean in a test early this month.
Contract documents also call for the Space-Based Laser demonstrator to comply with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems Treaty with Russia. The treaty generally limits how many missile defenses the U.S. and Russia are allowed to have.

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