WASHINGTON REPORT: Laser master plan on the Pentagon drawing board

Members of Congress think the Department of Defense (DoD) should do a better job of managing its many programs in laser research—and the lawmakers are taking steps to make sure that happens.

Vincent Kiernan,Washington Editor

Members of Congress think the Department of Defense (DoD) should do a better job of managing its many programs in laser research—and the lawmakers are taking steps to make sure that happens. In the Defense Authorization Bill for FY2000, passed in September, lawmakers set out strict rules for two major laser-weapon projects, and they directed the Pentagon to develop a "laser master plan" for the US military. The bill is one of two major defense bills passed each year. The other—the Defense Appropriations Bill—provides funds for the Pentagon, while the authorization bill specifies how the funds are to be spent, often including detailed policy directives.

One area in which Congress set out strict specifications is the Space Based Laser Project, a resuscitated part of the Strategic Defense Initiative that seeks to develop an orbiting laser that could destroy enemy ballistic missiles in flight. The Defense Authorization Bill orders the DoD—by March 15—to reorganize the program so that it includes a space test of the laser technology.

In addition, the DoD should conduct "research and development on advanced technologies that will not be demonstrated on the integrated flight experiment but may be necessary" for an operational system, the lawmakers wrote. Suspecting that some government officials are using technological issues as an excuse to delay the space experiment, lawmakers instructed the Pentagon to conduct ground-based research to resolve as many outstanding technological issues as possible.

The current Air Force plan for a space test of the technology in 2012 "is not sufficiently aggressive," lawmakers from the House and Senate wrote in a conference report that accompanied the final version of the bill. The flight experiment is being planned by a collaboration of Boeing Co. (Canoga Park, CA), Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space (Sunnyvale, CA), and TRW Inc. (Redondo Beach, CA).

The lawmakers also voiced concern about the Air Force's execution of the Airborne Laser (ABL) program, which aims at developing a Boeing 747 equipped with a laser that could shoot down enemy missiles in the first moments after they were launched. The bill forbids the Air Force from developing the first ABL test aircraft until it completes five different studies on turbulence. And the Air Force could not proceed with a second ABL aircraft until the first one "undergoes a robust series of flight tests that validate the technical maturity of the Airborne Laser program and provide sufficient information regarding performance."

Master plan ordered

The lawmakers also ordered the DoD to write a laser master plan and submit it to Congress by March 15. That plan should identify "potential weapons applications of chemical, solid-state, and other lasers" and the critical technologies needed to develop and manufacture those weapons, according to the defense bill. The report also is to include a roadmap for developing the technologies and an estimate of the funds needed.

Solid-state laser projects may particularly benefit from the plan, because lawmakers clearly signaled that the DoD should beef up its efforts in that area. "Solid-state lasers, because of their compactness, lower weight, and less volatile power sources, offer great potential for many military applications," lawmakers wrote in the House-Senate conference report. "The technology is more mature than is widely understood," they wrote.

But the DoD spends far less on solid-state lasers than on chemical lasers. The entire department spends only between $20 million and $30 million annually on solid-state laser projects, compared to the $500 million that it spends on the Space Based Laser and the Airborne Laser, the lawmakers noted. "Additional investment in solid-state laser technologies could prove to have military utility within several years," they said. "Because of the potential value of solid-state lasers for land-based military uses the Secretary of the Army should pursue a concerted effort to initiate a solid-state-laser development program."

The Defense Authorization Bill goes further by requiring the Army to launch such a plan. Moreover, the bill directs the Army Space and Missile Defense Command to collaborate with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, CA) on development of a 100-kW average-power solid-state laser.

It makes good sense for the Pentagon to better plan its many efforts in laser weaponry, one lawmaker said. "The objective is to maximize the return on our investment in these important technologies by coordinating these efforts across the services and provide a roadmap for future development," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) during a floor debate on the bill.

But Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) sounded a discordant note. He said that some of the defense funds would be better spent on sailors and soldiers. "I find it an outrage that enlisted families line up for free food and furniture while we pour hundreds of millions of dollars into C-130J [aircraft], automatic grenade launchers, and free-electron-laser programs."

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