US defence expert shoots down laser test project

Controversial US plans for a national missile defence system will not work, according to one the country’s leading ballistic technology experts.

John Pike, formerly with the Federation of American Scientists, and now director of military intelligence thinktank Global Security, has dismissed the project as costly and ill-conceived.

Speaking after the US Air Force announced last week that it has tested what could form part of a space-based laser gun, Pike said: ‘I don’t think the anti-ballistic missile systems will ever work well enough. But the Bush administration is prepared to push ahead even if they don’t.’

According to Pike, since the launch of the Strategic Defense Initiative by former president Ronald Reagan in 1983, the US government has spent more on space-based and land-based anti-missile systems than it has on other more successful defence projects, including the Stealth bomber.

‘We are no closer to deployment than during the Reagan administration,’ Pike said. ‘For years people have been saying that these systems would be operational in another ten years.’

The space-based system would be designed to destroy ballistic missiles shortly after launch.

In December a six-second test was carried out on equipment that concentrates a beam of light on a distant target. It involved a laser beam fed through a telescope, which was in a vacuum to simulate space conditions. Colonel Neil McCasland, director of the US Air Force’s space-based laser project office, said the experiment was a success.

‘We gathered a wealth of diagnostic data about the high-energy laser environment,’ he said. ‘It’s part of our strategy to identify and rigorously test design concepts that will lead us to a successful orbital demonstration.’

The test is part of a $240m programme to put an experimental laser into orbit in 2012. The first test firing from space at a dummy ballistic missile is scheduled to take place in 2013.