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First-ever laser antimissile system hits target in field test

5 May 2000

A New York Times report

A powerful laser developed by Israel and the United States to shoot down rockets has passed its first test at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, hitting a stationary target, American military officials said this week.

If it is eventually deployed, the system would apparently be the first of its kind. "To my knowledge, no nation has ever deployed an antimissile system based on a laser," said Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization at the Pentagon.

Designed and built by a California contractor, TRW, for Israel and the U.S. Army, the laser and its tracking system were tested last week against stationary targets, said Lt. Gen. John Costello, commander of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. Costello said the system, the Tactical High Energy Laser, would probably be tested this month against a moving Katyusha rocket. If that test is successful, he said, the system will be shipped to Israel for further testing and deployment.

"It will be the first engagement of the Katyusha rocket by a tactical high-energy laser, something that is militarily useful," the general said.

The Israeli Defense Ministry said it planned to deploy the system along its northern border to shoot down guerrilla rockets after Israel withdraws from Lebanon in the summer. A spokesman for the ministry, Dan Weinreich, said the weapon was in the final stages of testing in the United States and Israel.

Marco Morales, a spokesman for the Space and Missile Defense Command, said the cost to develop the system through the first attempted shoot-down was $190 million.

At a briefing this week in Huntsville, Ala., on missile defense, Costello said developing the system over five years "could in fact revolutionize warfare" by protecting troops from rockets, mortars and other artillery. But he said use of lasers in rain and fog will require special experiments.

The possible deployment of the laser, though its geographic range is modest, represents a striking turnaround for an antimissile technology that was criticized as unworkable in the Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s. Since then, most American antimissile systems have turned to "hit-to-kill" technology. That means that a rocket-propelled vehicle maneuvers toward an incoming missile to collide with it and destroy it. But the U.S. military has also continued long-term research and development on laser-based systems.

Those include the Israeli-American program for intercepting short-range missiles; an Air Force program to shoot ballistic missiles, such as Iraqi Scuds, using a laser on a Boeing 747 jumbo jet; and a joint venture by the Air Force and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization at the Pentagon to develop lasers that could be fired from space to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles.

All those lasers would derive their energy from powerful chemical reactions and destroy the missiles by heating them to high temperatures. Although the Israeli- American laser, if successful, would intercept rockets in the middle or end of their flights, the others would try to destroy missiles earlier, as their boosters fired.

The laser's exact power, range and repetition rate for firing are classified. But at the briefing in Huntsville, Richard Bradshaw Jr., a project manager at the Space and Missile Defense Command, said the laser fired fast enough that it was "capable of engaging multiple targets coming in."

Costello suggested that the laser would have an initial range of four miles. "Frankly," he added, "we´ve designed it with the Israelis because of the threat to northern Israel."

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