Clinton's blind eye benefits lasers and electro-optics

Feb. 1, 1996
President Bill Clinton pointedly ignored the 1996 Defense Appropriations Bill that Congress passed during the first shutdown of the US government last November.

President Bill Clinton pointedly ignored the 1996 Defense Appropriations Bill that Congress passed during the first shutdown of the US government last November. Although Clinton felt that Congress was spending too much on many defense programs, the bill was delivered to his desk as US troops were being moved to Bosnia. Under those circumstances, vetoing the bill, H.R. 2126, could have been politically precarious. So Clinton neither signed the bill nor vetoed it, and it became law by default on November 30.

The laser and electro-optics industries are the beneficiaries of Congress's largess and Clinton's studied ambivalence. Lawmakers added extra funds for several research programs and kept open some laser-related facilities that Clinton wanted to close.

One of Clinton's small victories in the Defense Appropriations Bill was Congress's agreement to continue the Technology Reinvestment Program (TRP), a program under the aegis of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that funds the development of industrial technology with defense applications. Clinton had asked for $500 million for the program in 1996, but many Republicansparticularly in the House of Representativesviewed the TRP as unwarranted federal meddling in the marketplace. In fact, the House voted to kill the TRP outright. But some senators strongly supported the TRP, so a final compromise gave the program $195 million for 1996.

However, many backers of the TRP found that level far too low. The deep cut in Clinton's request sends "precisely the wrong signal to the Pentagon's research bureaucracy," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), chairman of the Senate's Defense Appropriations subcommittee. "The signal is that rather than leveraging the commercial sector in innovative ways to save the taxpayers' money in developing and procuring dual-use technologies, it is okay to hunker down and pursue duplicative, ultimately deadend research with a military label on it."

Armed Services get funding

But senators weren't the only ones trying to sprinkle extra funding for research into the defense bill. The House gave the Navy $10 million that it hadn't requested for developing improved technology for manufacturing electro-optical devices. The program is to be conducted "in partnership with US manufacturers to develop advanced electro-optical manufacturing technologies aimed at developing lower-cost and technologically superior US weapons," according to the House-Senate conference report on the bill. In a separate provision, the Navy received $9 million that it hadn't requested for research on free-electron lasers. That money also came at the behest of the House.

The Army also now finds itself with money that it hadn't requested: the 1996 bill again rejected a perennial request from the Clinton administration to close the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility (HELSTF), operated by the Army Space and Strategic Defense Command at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Clinton had asked for only $3 million for the facility in 1996, mostly to pay for closing down the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser, located at HELSTF. But the final version of the defense bill includes $35 million for HELSTF itself. Moreover, Clinton had asked for only another $3 million for laser-research projects to be conducted at HELSTF, but the lawmakers boosted that figure as well to $24 million.

Laser-related programs in the Air Force also fared well in the Defense Appropriations Bill. Congress approved the full $19.54 million that had been requested for the Air Force's Airborne Laser program, which seeks to develop a laser mounted in a Boeing 747 aircraft that could shoot down enemy ballistic missiles within moments after they have been fired toward US troops. That project is now in "advanced development," with two teams of companies led by Rockwell (Canoga Park, CA) and Boeing (Seattle, WA) developing competing designs for the laser system.

Congress also provided an extra $20 million for Air Force research into excimer lasers and an additional $29 million for research and facilities at the Air Force Maui Optical Station high atop Hawaii's Mount Haleakala. The $29 million includes $22 million to complete the Advanced Electro-Optical System (AEOS), a 3.67-m telescope with adaptive optics intended to provide sharper images of satellites and other objects passing overhead and $7 million for the Field Laser Radar Demonstration, being built by Textron Defense Systems (Wilmington, MA). It would work with the AEOS to provide greater information on space debris and foreign satellites.

Medical applications

Congress even added extra money to the defense bill for research on medical applications of the free-electron laser. The program was started when the then Strategic Defense Initiative Organization was eyeing free-electron lasers as a way to destroy incoming nuclear warheads; the medical program awarded relatively small grants to universities to develop medical uses of the laser. Clinton's budget asked that the program be almost halved in 1996 to $13 million. But senators insisted that funding be kept stable at $26 million, and the House agreed. In their own report on the defense bill issued last summer, senators on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee said that the program should continue to focus on medical applications of free-electron lasers with short pulses and high peak power.

The issue of the use of lasers as blinding weapons on the battlefield also received passing attention by lawmakers, although they failed to back up their rhetoric with cash. Senators on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee urged the Pentagon "to place greater emphasis on the examination of existing laser eye-protection technologies to prevent partial or total damage to the eyesight of military personnel." The senators said the Pentagon should "field existing technologies as soon as possible," but they didn't earmark any money specifically for that purpose.

In the perverse ways of Washington, sometimes no action results in plenty of unintended actions to benefit special interests. With this defense bill, the laser and electro-optics industries reap such benefits.

About the Author

Vincent Kiernan | Washington Editor

Vincent Kiernan was Washington Editor for Laser Focus World.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Laser Focus World, create an account today!