Though the debate over a planned U.S. national missile defense system is currently centered around the concept of “hitting a missile with a missile,” in the end, Pentagon planners envision a much more futuristic concept involving the extensive use of ground- and space-based laser weaponry.

As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld continues to examine Department of Defense strategies and force requirements for the type of futuristic military envisioned by President George W. Bush throughout his presidential campaign, lasers — now being called “next generation weaponry” — are factoring heavily into the equation.

Eventually, Rumsfeld — and a few lawmakers, like Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H. — even foresee a new branch of the U.S. military: a “space force,” of sorts, to deploy alongside traditional Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard units.

“We are in a new national security environment. We do need to be arranged to deal with the new threats, not the old ones … with information warfare, missile defense, terrorism, defense of our space assets and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction throughout the world,” Rumsfeld said Dec. 28 after he was nominated as defense secretary.

In detailing the role of a panel commissioned to examine the need for U.S. space power and how it can be assured, Rumsfeld continued: “History teaches us that weakness is provocative. The task you have outlined is to fashion deterrence and defense capabilities so that our country will be able to successfully contribute to peace and stability in the world.”

Indeed, the United States has already developed a working laser weapon, in conjunction with Israel.

After a short war in Lebanon in April 1996, Israel was promised by the Clinton administration that the U.S. would help develop a laser-based anti-missile system capable of destroying incoming Katyusha rockets.

Though in and of themselves, Katyushas — small, inaccurate rockets that have little or no guidance — are not lethal enough to defeat Israel militarily, terrorist groups operating out of Lebanon have successfully used them to cause damage along the Jewish state’s northern border and wreak havoc among the population.

The “Nautilus” was an early laser system being developed to protect Israel’s northern border.

A laser system known as “Nautilus” was envisioned for the mission of destroying Katyushas, but another project, THEL –the Tactical High Energy Laser — is also nearing the end of its development cycle.

On June 6, 2000, at the White Sands Missile Range testing facility in New Mexico, THEL managed to down a single live Katyusha, destroying it in midair.

Since then, other tests of the THEL system have been conducted at multiple incoming targets; those, too, have been destroyed. Plans call for 12-18 months of field-testing, both in the U.S. and Israel. The THEL demonstrator will provide the first opportunity to assess the utility of high-energy lasers in an operational scenario.

“We’ve just turned science fiction into reality,” Lt. Gen. John Costello, Commanding General, U.S. Army Space & Missile Defense Command, said of the first successful laser test.

“This compelling demonstration of THEL’s defensive capabilities proves that directed energy weapon systems have the potential to play a significant role in defending U.S. national security interests worldwide,” he said.

During the first test, the THEL system detected the launch with its fire-control radar, tracked the rocket with a high-precision pointer tracker system, then engaged it with its high-energy chemical laser. Seconds later, the 10-foot-long, 5-inch-diameter rocket exploded.

To discover how to compensate for air turbulence and other environmental and atmospheric factors that could distort or diminish laser beams, U.S. researchers have fired low-powered lasers at the underbellies of small aircraft.

Such research has allowed the U.S. to continue to develop weapons that can not only be deployed in airborne platforms and in the non-atmosphere of space, but also on the ground, presumably aboard mobile platforms.

History and future of a new generation weapon

Lasers have been investigated for their usefulness in air defense since 1973, when the Mid Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser was first tested against tactical missiles and drone aircraft, the Federation of American Scientists said.

Work on such systems continued through the 1980s with the Airborne Laser Laboratory, which completed the first test laser intercepts above the earth, FAS said.

Over the past two decades, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Air Force and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, or BMDO, formerly the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, have developed the technologies essential for a Space-Based Laser system, or SBL.

And it is the SBL that is piquing the interest of Rumsfeld and the Bush administration.

“I think most Americans still see [laser weapons] as science fiction, at least for my generation that grew up with ‘Star Wars,'” Col. Ellen Pawlikowski, program director for the U.S. Air Force’s ABL, or Airborne Laser project, told The Toronto Star last week.

Regarding the reality of the weaponry, however, “this is groundbreaking, in terms of rising, revolutionary technology,” Pawlikowski said. “It’s out-there, in-front technology. This is part of a new era for the Air Force.”

Other experts agree.

Physicist John Pike, an international weapons expert, also told the paper that throughout history, aggressors always seek the high ground in conflicts. As the world’s only remaining superpower, he said it only makes sense that the U.S. would want to covet the “ultimate high ground.”

“Whoever controls space has control of Earth,” he said. “The United States is unable to resist it. If the U.S. is in a position to control Earth from outer space, there’s nothing to stop us. Of course we’re going to do it.”

Nicknamed the “Death Star,” the space-based laser program is well under way, led by $4.1 billion in development funds supplied by the BMDO. The goal is to place SBL into orbit in 2012 and conduct tests by the next year.

However, if Congress votes to accelerate funding for the project, experts believe SBL could be space-based by 2010 and ready to test.

Artist’s concept of how a laser satellite constellation would operate.

The SBL project includes a constellation of 20 laser-firing satellites encircling the Earth, ready to fire on a missile launched from anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice.

Such a system would enable missiles to be destroyed during their “boost phase” — or, shortly after they take off — while still over an enemy’s territory. If the missiles are carrying nuclear, chemical or biological warheads, the fallout would then be showered on citizens of the enemy state, rather than innocent parties or Americans.

Regarding laser weaponry, “the basic technologies have been proven,” Pentagon physicist Douglas Crawford told the Toronto paper. He has been working with high-energy lasers since graduating college in 1979.

“There are no inventions left to perform,” he added.

Technical innovations, however, are still left to solve, including just how powerful to make any space-based beam.

In practice, the laser should be powerful enough to hit a missile thousands of miles away, but not powerful enough to penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere and strike the surface if the beam misses its intended target.

Should a miss occur, researchers say any beam should be dissipated in the Earth’s atmosphere and unable, therefore, to strike the surface.

Politics, animosity, dominate debate

Supporters — including Rumsfeld, Bush, and several senior Pentagon planners — say more research and development dollars should be spent perfecting laser systems because of the potential they hold to protect U.S. citizens and other nations that enjoin any U.S.-built anti-missile shield.

But critics say the technology is unproven and ultimately as unreliable as current missile defense technology, which involves hitting a “bullet with a bullet” — one missile with another.

They point to a series of current missile-based defense system failures over the past year as proof that Bush’s “Star Wars-II” concept, like former President Ronald Reagan’s proposed system 20 years ago, will never work.

Also, critics say that most of the world’s major powers — including Russia and China, both of whom could pose threats to U.S. national security — are opposed to any missile defense shield and that by building it, Washington risks igniting a new Cold War or, at a minimum, another arms race, as competitor nations rush to build systems to defeat or destroy future U.S. systems.

Indeed, as WorldNetDaily reported Jan. 19, China is developing an anti-satellite capability that could, at least theoretically, debilitate or destroy U.S. satellite-based space lasers.

The new anti-satellite weapon is reportedly designed to “stick” to the body of enemy satellites so as to go unnoticed, then render it ineffective through jamming when activated. Sources said China had already successfully tested the system, but if not, analysts say, clearly Beijing is focusing on such a capability.

Also, in Nov. 1999, WorldNetDaily reported that China was advancing its own laser weapons program.

Plus, a joint Russian-China space alliance formed in the fall of that same year is expected to combine Russo-Sino technologies into similar next-generation weapons.

For all of these reasons and more, however, supporters say the U.S. should press ahead with laser development, rather than get caught “blinded,” so to speak, by the laser light at some point down the road.

Related stories:

China advancing laser weapons program

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China’s strategic threat to the U.S.

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China develops anti-satellite weapon

Chinese military upgrades thanks to U.S.

U.S. developing airborne laser project

Critic says ABL won’t work

Rumsfeld: America needs missile defense

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