A few U.S. Army vehicles, generators and a very precise laser now sitting in a storage building in the New Mexico desert could some day become a missile shield that would blast small rockets out of the sky - rockets just like the ones pounding Israeli settlements near Lebanon.
Wartime needs and a lack of money drove Army leaders to halt test and development on the Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser, or MTHEL, program in late 2004, effectively canceling the missile defense program developed by the U.S. Army Space & Missile Defense Command in Huntsville.
"The Army has no official requirement for (MTHEL) or budget authority, and without that I can't proceed on any kind of real meaningful work" on the program, said Scott McPheeters, Army acting product manager for directed energy applications on Redstone Arsenal.
But the laser weapon works. "It's highly effective and accurate. It can hit a target or a spot the size of a quarter at five miles away," McPheeters said.
It's a program defense experts think could protect American troops and their allies from rockets, artillery shells, mortar rounds and possibly cruise missiles or other types of guided ordnance.
"Normally, I'm highly skeptical about missile defense and some of its testing, but this seems to be a pretty ingenious type of defensive system that the Army might want to rethink and continue work on," said Chris Hellman, a missile defense expert with the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation in Washington.
The Pentagon spent about $300 million developing the MTHEL system from 1996 through early 2002, and would need to invest another $350 million to complete the work and build prototype vehicles, McPheeters said.
Although the exact details are secret, McPheeters said the laser causes a warhead to super-heat, blowing itself up in a few seconds.
The laser, invisible to the naked eye, uses a deuterium and fluoride chemical process to generate the high-energy beam.
It showed enough promise during tests in the late 1990s for the Pentagon to set up a series of summer 2000 flight engagements that shot down Russian-built Katyusha rockets, artillery shells and mortar rounds in flight.
The laser equipment, called "directed energy" applications by Army and defense engineers, now sits in storage at the White Sands Missile Range.
The system has shot down a number of targets, including 20 mortar rounds, 28 Katyusha rockets, five artillery shells and more, McPheeters said at his Redstone Arsenal office in an interview Friday.
Originally Russian in origin, the name Katyusha refers to a family of simple-to-use Soviet-era rockets that can range from two-inch diameter rockets to those about a foot wide, McPheeters said.