- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2000

Congress is adding up to $92 million to the Pentagon budget to fully fund an aircraft-mounted laser gun that will shoot down short-range missiles fired at U.S. forces.

The money for the Airborne Laser was cut by the Air Force in its latest budget request to pay bills owed by the service for its flight operations and for the new F-22 fighter, according to defense and congressional officials.

The futuristic weapon is being developed by the Air Force as a unique gun that fires light beams powerful enough to pierce the steel of missile frames and destroy them.

"We're really happy with the way the program is going," said Rich Garcia, director of public affairs for the laser program. "It's on budget and from a technical standpoint everything is right on time or ahead of schedule."

The large chemical laser gun is being developed by TRW Inc. of California and will be mounted aboard a militarized Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

The first Airborne Laser aircraft arrived in January at a plant in Wichita, Kan., where it is being readied for the several lasers and optics systems that will be fired through a special device on the nose of the plane.

A Senate aide said the funding cut, if it is not restored, will delay plans for the first test of intercepting a missile with the laser now set for 2003. If all goes well, the first Airborne Laser aircraft could be deployed in 2007.

Both the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee have added $92 million to the program to keep it on track for at least the first intercept test, the aide said.

The House version of the bill also added additional funds to the budget but about $10 million less than the Senate.

The additional funds will keep the program on track until 2002, but the Air Force still needs to budget for the laser jet in the years beyond that, the aide said.

"This is a powerful capability, but it needs to be proven," the aide said.

An Air Force report stated last year that the laser weapon "will merge state-of-the-art optics and tracking technologies to identify, track, shoot and destroy enemy theater ballistic missiles during their initial ascent, long before they place American or allied troops at risk."

Several House members have included language in their version of the current defense spending bill that would transfer authority for the Airborne Laser from the Air Force to the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. The measure was added because of the Air Force's budget cuts for the laser jet program.

Mr. Garcia said the Air Force is opposing the transfer and hopes the measure will be dropped as part of debate on defense spending bills.

Mr. Garcia said work is progressing on the first aircraft. The nose has been replaced with a special turret that will contain a 14,000-pound telescope used to direct the laser beam.

Technicians also are working on adding air-to-air refueling capability and strengthening the flooring and compartments, he said. The jet also will be equipped with what the Air Force calls "fast-steering mirrors" that are part of the optical laser firing mechanism.

The Airborne Laser will be outfitted with several lasers. In addition to the blast laser that will actually attack missiles, it will contain range-finding lasers.

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