April 8, 1997 in Nation/World

Photons Ready Like Science Fiction Coming True, The U.S. Air Force Plans A Fleet Of 747s Carrying Lasers To Burn Holes In Enemy Missiles And Explode Them.

Michael E. Ruane Knight-Ridder

The enemy missile leaves its desert launch site, rockets into the clouds above, and hurtles at four times the speed of sound toward its target miles over the horizon.

But 50 seconds into its flight, the missile is struck by an invisible photon beam. Almost instantly, the beam burns a basketball-size hole in the missile, which explodes, showering debris over enemy territory.

Sound like science fiction? The Air Force says it’s about to be fact: A small fleet of Boeing 747 jumbo jets will soon be armed with Star Trek-style photon lasers designed to shoot down enemy missiles like the Scuds used by Iraq during the Persian Gulf War.

Though deployment remains a few years off, top Air Force officials have expressed intense excitement about the development, which they say could be as revolutionary as radar, stealth, or the atom bomb.

If it works, the Airborne Laser could herald the dawn of a Buck Rogers era where bullets and missiles become obsolete, and aircraft armed with “ray guns” attack everything from Scuds to enemy surface-to-air missile sites.

Akin to the Reagan administration’s grandiose “Star Wars” space-based missile defense projects of the 1980s, the Airborne Laser is being touted by the Air Force as down to earth, relatively cheap, and doable.

“It’s pretty new age stuff,” says Air Force Col. Michael W. Booen, who was trained as a space shuttle astronaut and now heads the government-industry team designing the laser weapon.

“But it’s there. And it’s real.”

Capt. Jeffrey L. Moler, the Air Force’s chief laser expert on the project, says: “We’re living in the future now.”

Plus, says Air Force chief of staff Ronald R. Fogleman, “it has a tremendous leverage and payoff in terms of shot per kill.”

Lasers have been used for decades to guide bombs and aim weapons. “But this is the first time that we’ve really used a laser as a high-energy defense weapon,” Moler says.

The idea is for a lightweight, chemically activated laser called a COIL chemical oxygen iodine laser - to be installed aboard a 747. (High-tech as it is, the laser is fueled by relatively low-tech chemicals, some of which can be found in toothpaste and drain cleaner.)

The jumbo jet, with a crew of six, would be dispatched to a war zone and would circle at about 40,000 feet outside enemy airspace. There, the jet would be a part of the defenses against what are called theater ballistic missiles, such as the Scud.

The jet would be equipped with sophisticated heat sensors that could see more than 100 miles into enemy territory and detect the hot plume of a missile launch. Armed with chemicals for about 20 photon bursts, the jet would track the missile and fire the laser once the enemy rocket cleared the clouds.

A major advantage is that the missile would be attacked in its “boost phase,” when it’s still on its upward trajectory, Air Force officials say.

Missiles are under tremendous internal pressure on their upward path and can be easily exploded. In addition, the wreckage would fall to Earth while still over enemy territory.

During the Persian Gulf War, medium-range Scud missiles were one of Iraq’s chief weapons. Dozens were fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia. In one incident, 28 American soldiers were killed when a missile hit their barracks behind the lines at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

In other cases, American ground-based Patriot air defense missiles intercepted Scuds - but only during the Scud’s downward trajectory - and debris rained on friendly areas.

All that could end with the Airborne Laser - which, for now, has been named the YAL-1A.

The Air Force wants the system ready for demonstration, and potential use, in five years, and a fleet of seven laser aircraft ready by 2008. Total cost is estimated to be $11 billion over 20 years.

While promising tests already have been conducted, the technology still is daunting.

Early next year, the Air Force will buy from Boeing a 747-400F. Then Boeing, along with the big aerospace firms of TRW and Lockheed Martin, will modify the jet and build and install the laser weapon.

Because the laser has to be light enough for a plane to carry it, scientists are planning on the chemically charged weapon. An electronically powered laser would be huge and too heavy.

The Air Force says the project laser already is within 200 pounds of its 2,920-pound target weight.

Installed in the rear of the airplane, the photon laser would use the simple chemicals hydrogen peroxide, which can be found in toothpaste; potassium hydroxide, which can be found in drain cleaners; chlorine, iodine, and oxygen.

The substances are combined to create a reaction in which the iodine is “excited” to mass-produce photons, or tiny bits of energy.

The photons are formed into a stream and guided through a beam tube from the rear of the jet to a glass turret in the nose. There, the beam blasts soundlessly through a 4-foot, 9-inch aperture at 186,000 miles a second, the speed of light.

Like sun through a magnifying glass, the beam is focused tightly on the target, generating heat of 1,000 degrees, turning the metal red and cutting open the missile “like a can of sardines,” Moler says.

Booen, the project director, said there are many bugs that still must be worked out.

“But when we get this thing operationalized out there,” he says, “it’s going to fundamentally change the character of war.”

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