The Death Ray

Welcome to South Orange County, home of uranium 238, illegal immigrants, rare trout, and the most powerful military laser in the world

Today, serious missile threats do exist. However, the threats are principally short-range missiles (less than 1,000 kilometers) in regional conflict scenarios and from "rogue states" such as Iran, Iraq and Libya. North Korea is working on a missile with a 3,600-mile range, sufficient to reach Alaska and Hawaii. Iran has tested an intermediate-range Shahab 3 missile and may be only several years away from an intercontinental weapon. Despite these developments, the threat of a ballistic-missile attack on American soil is far remoter than that of an Oklahoma City terrorist act in which low-tech nuclear, chemical or biological weapons are deployed—a nightmare scenario against which missile defenses offer little protection.

But facts, as Reagan once misspoke, "are stupid things." The National Missile Defense program grew. In 1997, the United States and Russia agreed on a reinterpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, lifting prohibitions on any lasers and other advanced missile-defense systems in which the sensors and the kill mechanism were in different devices so that the weapon was not a single integrated unit. The Clinton administration has since approved funding the development and demonstration of Alpha, which it intends to lead to an operational constellation of half a dozen orbital battle stations by 2010.

On July 29, 1997, Congressman Ron Packard (R-Oceanside), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee for military construction, proudly announced details of the fiscal year 1998 National Security Appropriations Act, which included the following items: the Army's ground-based Tactical High Energy laser ($31.5 million in funding to complete the CTS test program), the Air Force's airborne laser ($157.1 million for the latest weaponry developed by TRW, Boeing and Lockheed Martin), and a space-based laser for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense system ($29 million to continue technology development at CTS).

In contrast to the political firestorms over SDI, the new laser programs have met with only muted reaction.


CTS's fascination with lasers began when the space program crashed to Earth in the 1970s. TRW picked up a research grant from the Department of Defense to build the Baseline Demonstration Laser, the world's first high-energy chemical laser. Working for the U.S. Navy in the early 1980s, TRW built and tested the Mid Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), a 2.2-megawatt deuterium fluoride chemical laser. But MIRACL suffered from very poor beam quality, which led to Alpha.

On Dec. 23, 1987, in the midst of the Star Wars debacle, TRW conducted the first "hot" test of Alpha at CTS, mixing hydrogen and fluorine gases to gauge their energy production. But the weapon wasn't fired until 1991. Then it was fired 12 more times through Sept. 18, 1996, when TRW successfully completed a five-second, full-duration, full-power test.

To make sure the devices will work in Earth orbit, researchers at CTS test the laser-weapons systems in the 50-foot test stand's space-like vacuum. The laser itself, suspended in the chamber cavity, takes up only a small part of the vault. The remainder of the structure is essentially a giant pump designed to simulate the vacuum of space by sucking air from the room. CTS engineers have connected tanks of gaseous fuel and exhaust pipes to the building. During test firings, clouds of steam trap chemical residue in the exhaust pipes before it can escape outside where we live.

The Alpha space-based laser's key components are the laser itself (which produces an invisible infrared beam about a foot in diameter) and the mirror/beam-control assembly that targets the missiles. To generate a laser beam, deuterium, nitrogen trifluoride and helium mix to produce fluorine, which burns with hydrogen in a mirrored chamber called an optical resonator. This creates "excited" hydrogen fluoride molecules. As these excited molecules return to a rest state, they emit photons. An optical resonator amplifies this cascade of photons, transforming them into a beam—a laser beam. A beam-control optical assembly uses special mirrors that enlarge and direct the beam to a single point far away.

The first combination laser-telescope test took place in early 1997. CTS still hasn't tested a functional weapon, but now they can point it straight.

Eventually, Alpha could go to heaven. It's designed to fit on huge aluminum battle stations riding like righteous, avenging archangels in near-Earth orbit 800 miles above the planet. The lasers promise to instantly obliterate any enemy intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles—a large number of fast-moving, distant, polished metal targets—climbing in boost phase to just above the Earth's atmosphere. The lasers can't hit the missiles on the ground because water vapor in the atmosphere absorbs infrared light rays. This means that before Alpha can work, the missiles must get up between 75 and 100 miles to the hard vacuum at the edge of the sky where the air's oxygen and nitrogen molecules disassociate into atoms.

Officially, writes William Broad, "the power of the beam is secret, with contractors saying only that it is hot enough to melt metal and that the intensity of energy at the core is several times greater than that of the surface of the sun." The sun's surface temperature is about 6,000 degrees—intermediate in the range of temperatures for stars, but sufficiently toasty to punch a hole in a rocket and instantly stamp it "Return to Sender."

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