So, Lasers Can Destroy Missiles. But Will They Find Them in Time?

The U.S. successfully tests a system designed to protect Israel from Hezbollah rockets. If it works in the field, it could usher in a generation of weapons.

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Not quite "phasers on stun" — or not yet, anyway — but the U.S. appears to have finally developed a battlefield laser weapon. Now the question is whether it's up to its mission. The Pentagon announced Thursday that the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) designed for Israel to deploy on its northern border was successfully tested in New Mexico Tuesday against an armed Katyusha rocket (the favored artillery of the Hezbollah guerrillas for attacking northern Israeli towns). The system tracked the incoming rocket, and blew it up with an invisible laser beam created by a chemical reaction in a battlefield weapon. "This is really the first time you have a ray gun with a real-world application," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "Of course it doesn't have any capacity to discriminate between different objects, it simply destroys whatever's in its path. But a lot of people are very excited about this."

The system has been developed, at a cost of some $200 million, to strengthen Israel's northern border in the wake of its withdrawal from Lebanon. "It's more analogous to the Patriot than anything else," explains Thompson, referring to the interceptor missile system deployed in Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War to defend against Iraq's SCUD missiles. But that system had a verifiable kill rate of only 25 percent of incoming missiles, according to a General Accounting Office study, and the new weapon faces a more complex challenge. "The Patriot system was cued by satellites whenever a SCUD was fired, giving it a minute or two's advanced warning of incoming," notes Thompson. Missiles fired from Iraq, separated from Israel by Jordan, had to travel some 300 miles before reaching Tel Aviv, whereas Hezbollah is able to deploy its Katyushas close to the border. "This system won't have much advanced warning, which makes its task that much more challenging. Then again, it has the advantage of speed, attacking its target with a sustained beam that travels at the speed of light rather than trying to hit a bullet with another bullet." Although the U.S. says it has no plan to field laser weapons of its own, if THEL proves successful in testing for attack by multiple rockets, the temptation will certainly grow. While Ronald Reagan's lasers-in-space missile shield may be some way off, yet, what army wouldn't want a death ray if there was one going?