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U.S. Balks at Sending Laser Weapon to Iraq


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Looks like another step close to David Drake's "Hammer's Slammers" storyline.


U.S. Army Balks at Sending Laser Weapon to Iraq




U.S. Army officials so far have balked at deploying an experimental laser weapon to guard against insurgents’ mortar and rocket fire in Iraq, the system’s builder said Wednesday.


“We’ve talked to them about it,” said Art Stephenson, a vice president at Northrop Grumman Corp., Los Angeles, which built the Tactical High-Energy Laser, or THEL.


A short-range air defense system made up of several components, THEL is the laser weapon closest to possible use in the field. It ties an advanced radar that detects and tracks incoming rockets to a chemically generated high-power beam that destroys them. The system’s development was jointly funded by the U.S. Army and the Israeli Ministry of Defense. 


Army officers had lots of questions about logistics and safety, Stephenson told reporters at a Northrop briefing titled “Directed Energy: Out of the Lab — Onto the Battlefield.”


“And there are answers to all those questions that alleviate those concerns,” he said. “It’s up to the military to decide how they want to use this capability.”


Army officials involved in the matter would not be available for comment until May 5, said Nancy Ray, an Army spokeswoman.


In tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, THEL has destroyed 46 targets in flight, including mortar rounds fired singly and in salvos, artillery shells and rockets, Northrop officials said. A target is zapped by the real-life equivalent of a Star Trek-like beam of light. The highly focused beam, generated by a mix of hydrogen fluoride and deuterium fluoride, focuses enough energy to heat the target until it explodes in mid-air.


Stephenson, vice president of Northrop’s new “Directed Energy Systems” business area, said the Army pulled the plug late last year on plans to develop a mobile version of THEL on the grounds it would be too bulky.


Since then, Northrop has designed a second-generation, “relocatable” system that’s about one-quarter the size of the one now at White Sands, N.M, with the same capability, he said.


The “relocatable” system could be deployed within two years at about $25 million apiece from the 30th unit if the Army were to buy that many of them, he said.


“We’re at a tipping point, so to speak, with chemical lasers, as it applies to ground-based” systems, Stephenson said.


Northrop Grumman is making progress on electric lasers, also known as solid-state lasers, which lag their chemical cousins for now, he said. Ultimately, these may be the Army’s weapon of choice because they run on diesel-fueled generators, doing away with chemical supply lines, Stephenson said.


The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is using Northrop chemical-laser technology for an airborne laser to be mounted on a specially designed Boeing 747. The aircraft would be used to shoot down ballistic missiles during their “boost” phase, or shortly after launch.


Overall, the United States plans to spend $7.2 billion on high-energy laser-related military projects from 2006 to 2011, including $5.2 billion for the airborne laser, according to figures from President Bush’s proposed 2006 budget culled by Phillip Brown, laser systems marketing manager for Northrop’s Space Technology business unit.

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