War Without Blood?

Pentagon sees lasers as weapon of future

By David Abel  |  The Boston Globe  |  7/18/1999

WASHINGTON -- In NATO's airstrikes against Yugoslavia, the alliance labored to limit civilian deaths and destroy camouflaged tanks and heavy weapons, as well as ensure third parties didn't resupply Serbia by sea or land.

In future wars those tricky tasks could become much easier, less expensive, and more effective, some military analysts say. Decades of research in high-powered microwave and laser technology, taking pages from science fiction, will allow development of "directed-energy" weapons within the next five to 10 years, these specialists predict.

Proponents of the experimental technology say the potential is so great that an adversary could be disarmed and defeated almost instantly - without bloodshed. Multiple laser beams, for example, might soon be able to pinpoint heavy weapons far more precisely than smart bombs; and focused microwaves could "fry" all electronics within a certain radius or shut down a moving ship's engines without endangering lives.

Other military challenges such as shooting down airborne missiles, a vexation to US officials during the 1991 Gulf War as Iraq launched volleys of Scuds against Israel and Saudi Arabia, may also be far easier.

"We've been working on directed-energy technologies for more than 20 years," said Earl Good, chief of the Air Force Research Laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., which receives more than $100 million a year for research and development.

"It's the wave of the future: It's easy to deploy. The cost per shot is very low. The technology has many uses. It is very precise. And it's starting to be understood and accepted for battlefield use."

Good's prime project is said to be little more than two years away from its first field test. It's called the Airborne Laser, one of the military's three budding antimissile programs. Unlike competing high-altitude missile-to-missile programs in the Army and Navy, in the Air Force plan, missiles would be zapped shortly after launch with a laser mounted on a modified 747 jet.

Like much of Good's work, the Airborne Laser has been criticized as money wasted on outlandish ideas. And to be sure, there are problems: The laser weakens in strength as it passes through the atmosphere. It may be vulnerable to countermeasures such as reinforced or rotating missile casings.

And the laser may be too heavy, even for a 747.

But despite setbacks and increasing costs, advocates of the technology see early tests as promising and the Air Force plans to buy seven laser-equipped 747s by 2007.

"The technology has matured quite a bit," said retired Air Force Colonel Richard Tebay, formerly the Airborne Laser program director. "One of the advantages of this kind of system is that it will place countries who launch these weapons at risk of having them fall back on their own country."

Critics argue the technology could increase the likelihood of accidental damage, leading to unintended consequences such as a North Korean missile falling onto South Korea or Japan after being zapped.

Furthermore, as laser technology advances and proliferates, military analysts and human rights groups warn, lasers might be used to attack the United States or blind soldiers and pilots.

And, in fact, they probably already have been. In May 1997, officials say, a Russian fishing boat suspected of spying off the coast of Washington state fired a laser beam at a Navy lieutenant and Canadian military pilot monitoring the ship from a helicopter, badly injuring their eyes. A year later, two Army helicopter pilots flying in Bosnia said lasers were aimed at them.

"There are certainly dangers to these weapons," said retired Army Colonel Dan Smith, now chief researcher of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank. "But when you get past the technological limits, there are many beneficial and nonlethal uses."

Advocates say the weapons are inexpensive and precise. Directed-energy weapons, delivered to their targets at the speed of light, could be calibrated to cause minor damage or total destruction, the advocates say.

Lasers will be eventually used for a variety of military goals, military officials say, including detecting and identifying chemical weapons, penetrating camouflage and illuminating targets, speeding secure communications and locating underground bunkers.

A first laser air-defense weapon, a project of the United States and Israel, may be tested this summer.

Despite delays and cost overruns, the Army's Tactical High Energy Laser, designed to protect troops against short-range attacks, might shield northern Israel from the Katyusha rocket assaults launched by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

"The economic and accuracy benefits of lasers are so promising that it's hard to believe they won't play a large role in our future arsenal," said Dan Goure, a former Pentagon strategist who is now a military analyst at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Even more promising are microwave weapons."

Perhaps more effective than lasers at neutralizing an enemy's ability to make war, microwaves might soon be able to disable computers, armament, and electrical devices without killing the people operating the equipment, Goure and other analysts say.

"From what I understand, we can do a lot of this already," Good said.