US gives go-ahead for laser weapon

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The Independent Online
A consortium led by Boeing and Lockheed has won a $1.1 billion Pentagon contract to develop the world's first full-scale airborne laser defence system to shoot down ballistic missiles - a project described by one supporter as a military innovation equal to the atom bomb.

"This is as revolutionary as the invention of gunpowder or the Manhattan Project," Jerry King, the president of Boeing's defence division, said of the scheme, comparing it to the construction and explosion of the world's first nuclear device in 1945.

The laser guns, with a range of several hundred miles, will be mounted aboard a modified 747 jumbo jet. If all goes well, as many as seven 747s could be in service by 2008, capable of delivering intense energy beams of light that could destroy missiles like the Scuds used by Iraq in the Gulf war.

The idea is for the laser to strike during the initial "boost" phase of a missile's flight, so that the deadly payload would fall back on the country which launched the weapon. At which point a basic problem of laser beams resurfaces - their inability to penetrate clouds. "You'd better hope for good weather," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists.

Even so, the airborne defence concept is proof that despite much scepticism the `Star Wars' dream has become a reality, albeit in not quite the grandiose form outlined by Ronald Reagan in 1983.