The human side of laser weapons research

Dec. 1, 1997
I must admit that I am not a Star Wars aficionado, and I have long been skeptical about the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) begun by Ronald Reagan in 1983.

I must admit that I am not a Star Wars aficionado, and I have long been skeptical about the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) begun by Ronald Reagan in 1983. So when a copy of a book entitled Airborne Laser: Bullets of Light, by Robert Duffner (Plenum, New York, NY, 1997) crossed my desk, I quickly stuck it in my bookshelf unopened and unread. Then recent news of tests of the Army`s MIRACL laser prompted some curiosity on my part about the history of laser weapons. Since someone had surreptitiously borrowed my copy of Laser Focus World contributing editor Jeff Hecht`s book, Beam Weapons: The Next Arms Race (Plenum, New York, NY, 1984), I started flipping through Duffner`s book. Intrigued, I actually read the book.

What caused my change of heart was not a sudden conversion to a Star Wars "hawk," but a fascination with the tales that Duffner unearthed in his researching of the history of the Airborne Laser Laboratory (ALL). Duffner, who heads u¥the US Air Force history office at the Phillips Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, NM, has not only diligently mined the recently declassified documents on the ALL, he also managed to interview many of the key players in the ALL program. It is the personal reminiscences of these participants that bring the book to life.

As Duffner describes it, the Air Force`s involvement with lasers dates back to February 1962 when the Pentagon`s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) gave the Air Force Special Weapons Center (AFSWC, which later became the Air Force Weapons Laboratory--AFWL) some $800,000 to study how powerful a laser would have to be to deliver enough energy to destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile. Bear in mind that this was only two years after Dr. Theodore Maiman of the Hughes Aircraft Company first demonstrated his ruby laser.

The right man, the right plane

I`ll mention here only two key components of the ALL program, one an unusual military scientist and the other a veteran Air Force plane. In the book, Duffner describes many researchers and cogently shows their technical contributions in great detail. As I read the book, I felt that the most influential team member was Lt. Petras V. Avizonis who, according to the commanding officer of the AFSWC, Col. David R. Jones, "appeared out of the blue" in March 1962. The young lieutenant, a Lithuanian immigrant, had received his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Delaware, where his interest in lasers had been sparked at a graduate seminar lecture by laser pioneer Charles H. Townes. Avizonis quickly became the AFSWC`s laser guru, serving as the technical director for the AFWL`s laser program from 1969 to 1978. He played a major role in advocating airborne tests that resulted in the AFWL`s acquisition of a NKC-135 aircraft (a military version of the Boeing 707). The struggle of Avizonis, his program director, Captain Donald Lamberson, and their colleagues to obtain a usable aircraft for the ALL makes for fascinating reading.

Lamberson and Avizonis spent more than a year in getting the Air Force`s Aeronautical Systems Division (ASD) at the Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, OH, to assign a suitably large aircraft to the AFWL. After tedious bureaucratic back-and-forth negotiations, the ASD finally, in March, 1972 was persuaded to relinquish an aging "hangar queen" (so-called because the NKC-135, built in 1955, had been parked for long periods of time between research missions). Duffner expertly describes the extensive work that went into modifying the aircraft. After many setbacks, in 1981 the ALL eventually succeeded in a "shootdown" of a missile. This one-time flying fuel tanker did yeoman service as the ALL test plane, eventually retiring when the ALL program came to an end in May of 1988 with its last flight from Kirtland AFB to its final resting place at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB.

It`s rare that we civilians get the chance to see how a military research program develops. Too often, we read in the popular press only sensational stories of cost overruns. Certainly, large sums were spent on military laser programs ($2.5 billion between 1960 and 1980), but Dr. Duffner`s book steers clear of controversy and concentrates on the researchers and their considerable technical achievements. He did not change my views on SDI, but I`m grateful for the insights he provides into the airborne laser`s history.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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