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San Francisco Chronicle May 6, 2005

Lockheed to build defense laser

Sunnyvale workers to develop light, portable device

By Benjamin Pimentel

Engineers in Sunnyvale will soon be working on the U.S. military's latest weapon -- a lightweight, portable laser that could be used to repel an enemy rocket or missile.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. said Thursday that it has signed a deal with General Atomics, a San Diego defense contractor, to help develop a tactical laser weapon that could defend a population center, a border or troops against artillery, mortar, rockets or missiles.

The U.S. military has been developing different laser weapons systems for combat, such as the so-called Star Wars project intended as a nuclear defense shield.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects agency, the Defense Department's research and development arm, has been pushing a smaller and more mobile system that could be integrated into a tactical aircraft or an unmanned aerial combat vehicle.

"It can be applied to many more platforms," said Lockheed spokesman Charles Manor. "You can put it on a ground vehicle, a helicopter, a jet. You don't want a heavy piece of equipment impeding performance. It makes it easier and more effective."

General Atomics will actually build the laser, while Lockheed Martin, which employs 8,500 people in Sunnyvale, will develop the system's ability to pinpoint and track a target.

The project is expected to be completed in 2009, Manor said.

It is part of the agency's High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System program.

In March 2003 testimony before the House of Representatives, DARPA Director Tony Tether said the program seeks to develop a laser defense system 10 times lighter than those being developed by the military.

He said the agency's goal of a system that is less than 5 kilograms per kilowatt "could protect fixed installations or population centers from attack, patrol a border, or patrol a demilitarized zone."

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank, said lasers are on the verge of making a transition into real weapons.

But he said the military needs to find a way to come up with lighter and more portable systems.

"They've got to do it if they're going to put it on airplanes," he said.

Citing a military system designed to be mounted on a 747 airplane, he added, "They can just barely get off the ground with that laser. The laser is a little too heavy for what they want to do. They are really operating at the limits of what they can do. If you're trying to get something that is usable on a tactical battlefield level, you want something smaller than a 747."

Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., a unit of Lockheed Martin Corp. in Bethesda, Md., designs and develops technologies for military, civil and commercial use.


Copyright 2005, San Francisco Chronicle