4 April 2002
By 2004, the military hopes to beam a laser from a jet toward a dummy ballistic missile off the coast of Vandenberg Air Force Base and blow it out of the sky. The $13 billion Airborne Laser System program, dating to the 1970s, involves using a modified Boeing 747 with various lasers directed out of its nose cone to spot, track and destroy enemy missiles shortly after they have launched. The system will be tested at Vandenberg and elsewhere.
The lasers -- there will be four types -- will beam through an 11,500-pound turret attached to the front of the aircraft. The turret will rotate 120 degrees and fire side to side and straight up, said Col. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, director of the laser program. A small carbon dioxide laser will spot a target, a solid-state laser will track the target and a beacon laser will measure atmospheric distortion. The laser that will eventually destroy the target is a chemical oxygen-iodine laser, equivalent to more than 1 million watts of electrical power.
During some ground and flight tests, a low-power laser of about 10,000 watts will be used in place of the higher-powered beam. "Missile defense is pretty important for protecting our troops and protecting our homeland," Col. Pawlikowski said.
"Missiles are not going to go away. Too many nations see (them) as a potential way to hurt us." At a public hearing Wednesday night in Lompoc, military officials explained the concept to 20 people and sought comments to be included in an environmental impact statement. An environmental report was completed in 1997, but the military added some tests and a supplement was required.
The draft document is expected in the fall, and more hearings will occur then.
Solvang resident Fred Kovol told military representatives his primary concern is pollution associated with the tests, and San Luis Obispo resident Sheila Baker wanted the military to know of her worries about the tests' effects on the air, soil and water. Lompoc resident Justin Rughe supported the concept, and called the lasers "absolutely new revolutionary technology." Compared to pollution from other weapons, such as gunpowder, Mr. Rughe said the laser "by comparison is pure."
The Vandenberg tests would involve the launching of some kind of dummy missile from the coastal base, probably in December 2004. There could be as many as 25 missile flight tests from the base, over the Pacific Ocean, said Juventino "Rich" Garcia, spokesman for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N. M. The airborne laser is part of the Pentagon's new push for a "multilayered" approach to missile defense. Another segment, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Program, is being tested at Vandenberg and seeks to destroy missiles during the middle portion of their flights.
The airborne laser aims to obliterate a missile during the boost phase, at about 35,000 feet. If the missile is destroyed, the debris would then fall back on the adversary. In the 2002 fiscal year, the program is budgeted to receive $476 million; $598 million in 2003.
Comments for the supplemental environmental report can be sent to