The Toronto Star, March 25, 2001
A NEW BATTLEGROUNDSTAR WARS: BEHIND THE U.S. MISSILE PLAN
second of three parts
defence system, including lasers in space
technology. It's out-there, in-front technology. This is part of
a new era for the air force'
There's something very lucrative about hitting the missile on its
way up rather than the warhead on its way down'
DEATH STARS. Killer lasers. Invisible beams that, in the words of one senior U.S. military official, can "reach out and touch the enemy at the speed of light."
No longer the stuff of comic-book villains, multi-billion-dollar weapons being developed by the Pentagon and the world's largest defence contractors are swiftly turning "killer light" from science fiction to fact.
Ground-based lasers already have been used, in one U.S. Army test, to hit an aging American satellite.
It's all part of the United States' controversial missile defence plan that would destroy long-range missiles, from land, sea, air and space.
Supporters say the system will protect the U.S. and its allies from missile attacks launched by so-called "rogue states" such as North Korea and Iraq. But the proposal has angered Russia and China and raised fears of a new arms race.
Some military leaders, including Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, not only envision a space force in future, like the army, navy and air force, but insist the U.S. must reach "superiority" in putting weapons in space.
The U.S. military is wasting little time.
Since last summer, a joint Israeli-American military venture has successfully shot down almost two dozen Russian-made Katyusha rockets in experiments in the New Mexico desert, using a ground-based laser weapon.
To learn how lasers might be knocked off course by air turbulence, the American military has fired low-powered beams at the bellies of small planes.
At the air force base here in northwestern New Mexico, the military is using low-power lasers and high-power telescopes to create "artificial stars" in nightly tests to find ways of using laser weapons in varied atmospheric conditions.
"I think most Americans still see it as science fiction, at least for my generation that grew up with Star Wars," says Col. Ellen Pawlikowski, a chemical engineer and program director of the U.S. Air Force's airborne laser (ABL) project.
"This is ground-breaking, in terms of rising, revolutionary technology. It's out-there, in-front technology," she says. "This is part of a new era for the air force."
Throughout history, says John Pike, an international weapons expert, aggressors seek the high ground in conflicts, and so it's inevitable that the world's only superpower covets the "ultimate high ground.
"Whoever controls space has control of the Earth. The United States is unable to resist it. If the U.S. is in a position to control Earth from outer space, there's nothing to stop us. Of course, we're going to do it."
Several Star Wars-type weapons are under development, including the long- feared, space-based laser (SBL), nicknamed Death Star.
A $4.1 billion project funded by the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defence Organization is testing lasers for space at defence contractor TRW's labs near the Los Angeles airport.
By year-end, the space-based laser group - teaming defence industry giants Lockheed Martin, Boeing and TRW - expects to break ground on a larger test facility in Mississippi.
The goal is to put a laser into orbit in 2012 and start experimental attacks on missiles the following year.
The Death Star project includes a constellation of about 20 laser-firing satellites circling Earth, ready to blast a missile anywhere within seconds.
Recent space-simulation tests of the high-powered laser have been so successful that some air force leaders contend the space-based lasers could be launched by 2010 if the U.S. Congress agrees to accelerate funding.
"The basic technologies have been proven," says Douglas Crawford, a Pentagon physicist who has been working with high-energy lasers since he graduated from college in 1979. "There are no inventions left to perform."
Still, it's tough to simulate the conditions under which a space-based weapon would operate. And the actual spacecraft housing the laser hasn't been built yet.
Weapons designers are concentrating on reducing weight, size and cost of the laser - the launch and space tests are estimated at $3 billion - while trying to improve its efficiency. Among the major problems they're working on is keeping the laser beam stable.
The laser is designed to be so accurate and so concentrated that it can destroy a long-range missile thousands of kilometres away. Yet the weapon must not be so powerful that it could accidentally hit Earth. Its creators insist that, if a target is missed, there would be no threat because Earth's atmosphere would absorb all the beam.
But fallout from a nuclear, biological, chemical or conventional warhead hit by the laser could land back on the attacker's territory.
Critics contend the space-based laser is no more a sure thing than its controversial and still unproven cousin, the National Missile Defence (NMD) scheme.
That $60 billion, ground-based program, promoted by President George W. Bush and scheduled for operation in 2006, is designed to destroy long-range missiles by "hitting a bullet with a bullet." In theory, the U.S. fires an unarmed missile interceptor known as a "kill vehicle" into space, where it destroys an oncoming warhead in a high-energy collision.
"This is right up there with the war on cancer and a cure for the common cold, " says Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington defence policy organization. "A lot of money goes in and not much comes out. They've been working on this for 25 years . . . They're no closer to flying this thing than they were 25 years ago.
"But throw enough time and money at it and you'll probably get a gadget with a high-powered beam that occasionally destroys targets," Pike concedes. " Presumably, having campaigned hard on missile defence (during the 2000 election campaign), we can expect Bush to throw more money at the space-based laser."
Lethal lasers have been studied in earnest since president Ronald Reagan initiated his "Star Wars" weapons research program in 1983 to counter Russian missiles. But funding that hit an annual high of $2 billion was cut dramatically after the collapse of the Soviet Union and wasn't revived until the 1991 Gulf War showed the gaps in anti-missile technology.
The "Son of Star Wars" campaign surged under president Bill Clinton, after a 1998 commission headed by Rumsfeld reported that rogue nations were years closer to threatening North America with intercontinental missiles than was earlier forecast.
The 1999 National Missile Defence Act that followed commits the U.S. to a national missile defence plan "as soon as is technologically feasible."
Yet Canada and major European allies have joined Russia, China and India in warning that the U.S. scheme could ignite another global arms race.
And missile defence, whether it's ground-based or space-based, violates the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, considered the cornerstone of international arms control.
The American military and political establishment insists the U.S. must build a missile defence - Bush favours a combination of sea, land, air and space systems - against the threat of terrorists or Third World nations keen to lob missiles against the U.S. or its allies. About 70 countries already have short-range ballistic missiles - and Iraq, Iran and North Korea are among those believed to be developing long-range missiles that could have nuclear or biochemical warheads.
"We don't have anything to defend ourselves against ballistic missiles," says Crawford at the Ballistic Missile Defence Organization. "We're defenceless."
Some U.S. military leaders predict that with an infusion of more money, laser weapons will be ready long before the more technologically difficult land- based missile system.
According to air force Col. Neil McCasland, it's quicker to knock out a missile from space than from Earth.
"Intercepting at the end (of a missile launch) is very difficult," says McCasland, director of the SBL project. "There's something very lucrative about hitting the missile on its way up rather than the warhead on its way down."
After more than 20 years of Pentagon-fuelled research on high-energy lasers, McCasland says, "I'm confident this is worth the country's trust."
With private and military - army, air force and navy - laser experiments blossoming across the U.S., the defence department last year published a Laser Master Plan encouraging more research and development in chemical, solid-state and other lasers.
According to Jane's International Defence Review, the U.S. has spent more than $14 billion since 1962 on developing high-energy lasers. The Pentagon's marquee project is the airborne laser (ABL), a $1.6 billion project that is turning an ordinary 747 jumbo jet into the world's first laser combat plane.
The jet is undergoing two years' worth of modifications at a Boeing hangar in Wichita, Kan. Its belly is being reinforced with titanium and a six-tonne, swivelling nose turret is being built that would direct the laser beams to their target. The plane's laser technology has been developed and tested at TRW labs at Capistrano, near San Diego, and here at the huge Kirtland air force base.
"The ABL will be our first line of defence against (short-range) ballistic missiles," says Pawlikowski, the program director. "It gives us the ability to use something clean - very intense light - very, very quickly . . . to protect our troops."
The first firing of the laser is set for August at TRW. The "00-0001" jet, so- named because it is the first prototype the air force has designed this century, is due to begin flying in October, without its lasers.
The plane is scheduled to be moved to Edwards air force base in California by mid-2002 for laser-loaded flight tests.
If all goes according to plan - in a field where cost overruns, technical glitches and production delays are common - the ABL is to attempt its first test in 2003 off the California coast. Tests would simulate war conditions in which the laser plane would attempt to destroy several dummy Scud missiles.
"I believe the system will work," Pawlikowski says. "We have some challenges ahead of us . . . there could be some problems with the integration, some technical problems, but no showstoppers."
At Kirtland, charred and punctured hulls of missiles are propped up as exhibits at "The Pit," a sub-surface, laser-testing lab that simulates space with vacuum chambers.
Unlike comic-book weapons, however, the ABL won't vapourize its target but will soften it for explosion by burning into the missile's metal casing and creating enough pressure to cause an explosion.
"It's proven it will work," boasts site director Grant Denton of Boeing. "We know the lasers work. We know the beam-control system works. We've never put them together."
The plane will feature 14 lasers capable of firing about 20 to 30 times against a multiple-missile launch.
Once the hot plume of a newly fired missile is detected by the plane's four infrared sensors, a "ranger" laser on top of the aircraft would locate the missile and relay information to on-board computers to estimate the missile speed, origin and intended target.
The missile would then be tracked by beacon lasers that lock on to its fuel tank before the attack laser is fired.
The mammoth jet would be so automated, it would require only a crew of eight, including two pilots and two co-pilots in the usual first-class area and four computer analysts working in what would normally be the business-class section.
While the network of space-based lasers would be designed to hit missiles anywhere on Earth, the airborne laser would have a more limited range, of at least 350 kilometres. The ABL jet would fly above the clouds, at about 40,000 feet.
The current project calls for a fleet of seven ABL-jets to be ready by 2009, at a final cost of $11 billion. Two jets would always be aloft, with five able to rush to a combat zone within 24 hours.
"This has the potential for many applications down the road," says Pawlikowski. "This is just a first step."
Leaders of both the air- and space-based programs say they're heartened by current tests at the White Sands missile range in New Mexico - home of the atom bomb tests - that are regularly exploding Katyusha rockets.
"At least they proved we can kill something," says Pawlikowski. "It was an important step that took us out of the realm of science fiction."
Tomorrow: The man behind Star Wars
Copyright 2001 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.