U.S. developing laser defense against SA-7 attacks

Monday, November 3, 2003

The United States is developing a laser weapon to defend against terror attacks like the shoulder-fired missile attack on an American helicopter Sunday.

U.S. officials said Iraqi insurgents have been trained in the use of shoulder-fired SA-7 surface to air missiles which destroyed a Chinook helicopter over the weekend, killing 16 U.S. soldiers.

The U.S. Air Force has been briefed on a system that could automatically detect an infrared surface-to-air missile launch and emit a laser beam to destroy the projectile. The system would be based on the Tactical High Energy Laser developed by Israel and the United States in 2001.

Northrop Grumman has shown the Air Force a deuterium-fluoride chemical laser system that could either be mounted on a mobile or stationary platform. The concept, called the Hazardous Ordnance Engagement Toolkit, is designed to protect military and civilian airports from man-portable shoulder-fired missiles such as the Soviet-origin SA-7, which was fired toward a U.S. F-15 outside a Saudi air base in 2002.

U.S. officials and Northrop executives said they are trying to determine how many laser units would be required to protect a military airport. A unit could engage a salvo of missiles in accordance with THEL tests conducted at White Sands Missile Range in 2001. The THEL tests were conducted against 28 Katyusha rockets and artillery shells.

Israel and the U.S. have also launched the mobile or M-THEL project. That project seeks to reduce the size of the THEL prototype so it can fit on a military vehicle platform.

Executives said the proposed laser system would require other countermeasures to ensure the protection of aircraft landing and take-off from airports. The Air Force has procured the Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures system, meant to protect such air transports as the C-17.

The program has come under the authority of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. Israel's Defense Ministry and the U.S. army have agreed on the requirements of a mobile laser system that can be transported on a truck.

The two countries intend to allocate nearly $100 million for the development of the Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser, or M-THEL.

The agreement on the funding came last month during meetings between an Israeli parliamentarian delegation and Congress. Congress agreed to approve $56 million for M-THEL and Israel pledged to allocate about $30 million.

M-THEL is expected to be completed in 2007. Congress has allocated $56 million for the project in fiscal 2004.

Israel and the United States completed the Tactical High Energy Laser in 2001. But Israel determined that the system was too large for operational use.

"Now we have to make it an efficient, compact weapon that can be used in the battlefield and in the war on terrorism," Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Yuval Steinitz, who led the Israeli delegation to Washington, said.

Steinitz said the M-THEL funding is part of Israeli-U.S. efforts to improve defense against a range of missiles and rockets. He said Congress also approved $89 million for the improvement of the Arrow-2 missile defense system.

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