Some laser programs take a hit in federal budget

President Bill Clinton's proposed 2001 federal budget, unveiled in early February, contained mixed news on laser-related projects. Although laser programs generally fared well in the budget, some specific programs were hit hard with cuts.

President Bill Clinton's proposed 2001 federal budget, unveiled in early February, contained mixed news on laser-related projects. Although laser programs generally fared well in the budget, some specific programs were hit hard with cuts.

The most glaring example is the Airborne Laser (ABL), an Air Force project to develop a Boeing 747 equipped with a chemical laser that could shoot down enemy ballistic missiles soon after they were launched. TRW (Redondo Beach, CA) and Lockheed Martin (Bethesda, MD) are working with Boeing (Kent, WA) on the project. In January, the Air Force accepted delivery of the 747 aircraft that will be used to test the laser device.

But Clinton's budget requested

$149 million for the ABL program in 2001, down from this year's funding of $304 million. What's more, the projected annual federal budgets through 2005 envision a total reduction of about $900 million to the ABL program compared to what originally had been planned.

For their part, Air Force officials said they still back the program strongly. "The ABL will be a key Air Force contributor to the nation's multilayered theater missile defense architecture." But lawmakers who are impatient for missile-defense systems took umbrage at the cut. For example, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) said that the budget request is $92 million below what the Air Force needs to keep the program on track. Clinton's budget request will add at least two years and millions of dollars to the program, he said.

Domenici also called inadequate the $15 million that the Army's budget includes for research at the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility in New Mexico, down from $31 million this year. He also complained about the lack of any funds for the Tactical High Energy Laser project, a joint US-Israeli effort to develop a portable deuterium fluoride laser that could be used against enemy missiles. Congress appropriated $10 million in 2000 and also boosted funding for the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility above what Clinton had requested. Domenici has made clear that he will try to add additional funds to those programs and ABL this year as well.

At the Department of Energy (DoE), the National Ignition Facility (NIF; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore CA) also encountered a budget cut, down from $253 million in 2000 to $80 million in 2001. The NIF would train high-power lasers on a pellet of hydrogen to momentarily create the conditions of thermonuclear fusion for use in perfecting computer simulations of exploding nuclear weapons. In recent months, NIF has come under fire for falling behind schedule and climbing over budget, but there was no indication that the budget decline was due to those problems.

Meanwhile, the DoE did increase funds for research related to NIF in the area of inertial confinement fusion. The budget includes $121 million for such research in 2001, up from $100 million in 2000. And the DoE program that finances other inertial-confinement laser facilities was essentially unchanged: $70 million in 2001 compared to $72 million this year.

A new management plan for NIF is due to be submitted to Congress in June, but Gen. Thomas Gioconda, DoE acting assistant secretary for defense programs, told lawmakers that NIF management has already been revamped. For example, the Livermore laboratory will hire industrial contractors to manage assembly of key components rather than trying to manage that itself. "Assembly and installation of the beam-path infrastructure system will now be managed and performed by industrial partners with proven records of constructing similar facilities," he said.

Some programs set to grow

One Pentagon laser program that did see growth is the Space Based Laser (SBL), whose funding rises from

$73 million this year to $138 million in 2001—including $75 million from the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and $63 million from the Air Force budget. "In the near term, the SBL project will focus on ground-based efforts to develop and demonstrate the component and subsystem technologies required for an operational space-based laser system and the design and development of an integrated flight experiment," he said.

Another growth area for the military is in laser-related eye protection. For example, the Air Force budget includes $14 million to purchase more than 26,000 eye-protection devices for cockpit crews and ground workers. Gen. Michael Ryan, Air Force chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "The ultimate goal is to provide full retinal coverage at any angle, while allowing visibility of the aircraft cockpit displays and good light transmission for use in night operations."

Vincent Kiernan
Washington Editor

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