KIRKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Just before dawn on July 16, 1945, scientists from Los Alamos detonated the world's first atomic bomb on a vast desert in south-central New Mexico, thereby opening a new chapter in the history of warfare.
Not far from the site of that original blast, almost exactly 55 years later, on June 6, 2000, scientists and technicians from the army -- ours and Israel's -- performed another history-making feat when they used a chemically fueled, high-powered laser to zap an incoming Russian-made katyusha rocket with a live warhead on its nose.
While not nearly as dramatic as the nuclear explosion, the successful demonstration of the Tactical High Energy Laser nevertheless was exciting, welcome news to defense-minded people around the world, especially to those who have been laboring deliberately and persistently in the field of directed energy weaponry.
What the THEL test proved is that it is practicable to use a beam of intense, highly focused light as an effective, dependable, comparably inexpensive way of protecting our troops and allies from enemy terror attacks.
That, in a nutshell, is what directed energy weaponry is all about, whether it's the ground-rooted THEL or our airborne model, the Airborne Laser (ABL). Ready or not, warfare is about to be expanded into yet another realm, a transition as inevitable as those following the invention of gunpowder and the unlocking of the atom.
I would be considerably less than candid if I tried to give the impression that the THEL test demonstrated irrefutably that lasers are ready to go operational as weapons and can be as reliable as the old standbys: the artillery shell, the bomb, the bullet.
But THEL was important -- and I'd like to emphasize that word -- simply because it worked. It authenticated directed energy research and proved that lasers can no longer be written off as Star Trek fantasies and wishful thinking. That doesn't mean the laser is going to work every time under all conditions, particularly on the battlefield itself. But it affirmed that directed energy weaponeers are on the right track, that we're truly on to something.
The airborne laser won't get the chance to display our magnum opus -- also a chemically fueled laser but one that uses different chemicals and is much more powerful than THEL -- for roughly three years.
But that doesn't mean we're idle. We got our first aircraft, an off-the-assembly line 747-400 freighter (the same plane flown by Federal Express and United Airlines, among others), in January. It is now undergoing modifications at the Boeing facility in Wichita, Kan., mainly structural strengthening and installation of a 14,000 pound nose turret for the beam-directing telescope.
That work is expected to be completed by next summer. Then we will start installing the lasers and the optical equipment. By the end of 2003, we expect to be shooting down missiles over the Pacific in a series of tests that will prove we're ready for action.
If we clear that hurdle -- and I'm confident we will -- we'll be ready to zip off to the Mideast or Asia or wherever the trouble spot of the day happens to be. No matter where it is, our 747s can be there and on station within 24 hours, ready to shoot down enemy theater ballistic missiles, like Scuds, soon after they leave their launch pads and before they can endanger our troops.
It hasn't been easy getting where we are today -- more than halfway through the development of our first aircraft while remaining on schedule and within budget. And it won't be easy getting the rest of the way, THEL or no.
There still are skeptics who say an entirely laser-armed combat aircraft, which is neither a fighter nor a bomber, will never work. But then they said the same thing to Billy Mitchell. My response is wait and see.
Col. Ellen M. Pawlikowski is the director of the Air Force's Airborne Laser System Program Office.