- WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S.
Army officials so far have balked at deploying an experimental laser weapon
to guard against insurgents' mortar and rocket fire in Iraq, the system's
builder said Wednesday.
- "We've talked to them about it," said Art Stephenson,
a vice president at Northrop Grumman Corp., which built the Tactical High-Energy
Laser, or THEL.
- THEL, a short-range air defense system made up of several
components, is the laser weapon closest to possible use in the field. It
ties an advanced radar that detects and tracks incoming rockets to a chemically-generated
high-power beam that destroys them. The system's development was jointly
funded by the U.S. Army and the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
- Army officers had lots of questions about logistics and
safety, Stephenson told reporters at a Northrop briefing titled "Directed
Energy: Out of the Lab -- Onto the Battlefield."
- "And there are answers to all those questions that
alleviate those concerns," he said. "It's up to the military
to decide how they want to use this capability."
- Army officials involved in the matter would not be available
for comment until Thursday, said Nancy Ray, an Army spokeswoman.
- In tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico,
THEL has destroyed 46 targets in flight, including mortar rounds fired
singly and in salvos, artillery shells and rockets, Northrop officials
said. A target is zapped by the real-life equivalent of a Star Trek-like
beam of light. The highly focused beam, generated by a mix of hydrogen
fluoride and deuterium fluoride, focuses enough energy to heat the target
until it explodes in mid-air.
- Stephenson, vice president of Northrop's new "Directed
Energy Systems" business area, said the Army pulled the plug late
last year on plans to develop a mobile version of THEL on the grounds it
would be too bulky.
- Since then, Los Angeles-based Northrop has designed a
second-generation, "relocatable" system that's about one-quarter
the size of the one now at White Sands, New Mexico, with the same capability,
- The "relocatable" system could be deployed
within two years at about $25 million apiece from the 30th unit if the
Army were to buy that many of them, he said.
- "We're at a tipping point, so to speak, with chemical
lasers, as it applies to ground-based" systems, Stephenson said.
- Northrop Grumman is making progress on electric lasers,
also known as solid-state lasers, which lag their chemical cousins for
now, he said. Ultimately, these may be the Army's weapon of choice because
they run on diesel-fueled generators, doing away with chemical supply lines,
- The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency is using Northrop
chemical-laser technology for an airborne laser to be mounted on a specially
designed Boeing Co. 747. The aircraft would be used to shoot down ballistic
missiles during their "boost" phase, or shortly after launch.
- Overall, the United States plans to spend $7.2 billion
on high-energy laser-related military projects from 2006 to 2011, including
$5.2 billion for the airborne laser, according to figures from President
Bush's proposed 2006 budget culled by Phillip Brown, laser systems marketing
manager for Northrop's Space Technology business unit.
- © Reuters 2005. All Rights Reserved.