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Albuquerque Journal March 5, 2002

Kirtland Developing a Gunship

By Miguel Navrot, Journal Staff Writer

One of the Air Force's most devastating attack planes may soon hold in its belly a weapon touted by military officials for, among other things, its nonlethal nature.

Air Force researchers are developing a laser to fit inside the next generation of AC-130H "Spectre" gunships, a heavily armed brute used in almost every U.S. conflict from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

Research on the new weapon, known as the Advanced Tactical Laser, or ATL, is ongoing at Kirtland Air Force Base. The Pentagon made the laser weapon a priority for development last year, and the Bush administration has proposed increased funding.

Potential uses deemed "nonlethal" for laser technology include piercing enemy trucks, liquefying communication antennae or poking holes through airplane wings. In short, making objects the targets instead of people.

"Anytime you talk about laser weapons, you're talking about melting something," said Jim Riker, a senior research physicist with the Air Force Research Laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate.

But laser beams also have a deadly edge. Flashing a high-temperature beam through a vehicle's fuel tank, for example, can cause an explosion, Riker said.

Placing the laser on the AC-130 gunship would give high-precision capability to Air Force special operation crews, who are trained to infiltrate enemy areas for fighting or rescue missions.

A boost in proposed funding for the special operations budget is now driving interest in the laser. About $62 million for research is proposed under President Bush's defense budget for the next fiscal year - four times the $14.9 million currently allotted.

The beam itself is fueled by a chemical reaction. Hydrogen peroxide and potassium hydroxide - ingredients found in hair bleach and drain cleaner - are mixed with chlorine gas and water.

That cocktail could produce a light beam with a range of nearly 10 miles, according to the Defense Department.

With it, the military could go after hostile targets near hospitals, schools or homes, said George Grimes, a Special Operations Command spokesman at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.

The Advanced Tactical Laser is similar to another chemically fueled laser project at Kirtland, the Airborne Laser. But instead of a special-operations gunship, the Airborne Laser would be mounted on the front of a Boeing 747 freighter, flying several thousand feet above the earth to shoot down theater ballistic missiles.

Another difference is the chemical exhaust.

Instead of just letting the spent chemical mix blow out as it would with the Airborne Laser's 747, researchers are trying to have the smaller, Advanced Tactical Laser system capture its effluent, regenerate it and use it for more firings, Riker said.

Weapon-class lasers have been a military research topic since at least the 1960s. Testing the AC-130 gunship laser, which is being developed with contractor Boeing Co., is at least three years away, Riker said.

White Sands Missile Range has been mentioned as a possible testing area.

Some question the usefulness of an aircraft-based laser firing at ground targets.

John Pike, director of the Virginia-based defense watchdog group globalsecurity.org, said hitting moving trucks or other vehicles through a cloud of dust or smoke could be difficult with a laser.

"Whether that's going to turn out to be mildly annoying ... or something that would substantially interfere or diminish the range of the thing - I'm sure that will be one focus of the administration," Pike said.

Also, Pike said, the laser would likely be more useful on enemy troops than vehicles. Many vehicles, Pike said, would be impervious to a laser blast.

"A hole punched into the hood of a Jeep basically means that I now have a Jeep with a hole in the hood," Pike said. "That's all."

Air Force Special Operations wouldn't specify what objects might be targeted with the laser.

Copyright 2002 Albuquerque Journal