A Newport News physics laboratory has won $10 million to upgrade a powerful laser that could be used for missile defense.
The money, approved as part of a compromise defense budget by a House-Senate conference committee, will be used by the Navy to make the free-electron laser at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility at least 10 times more powerful than it is today.
The three-year construction project, which officials said could begin in March, is designed to give the Navy a powerful new tool to protect against the growing threat of cruise missiles.
The Navy shunned the project in 1997, saying it could not afford to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on an unproven technology.
But now, with the laser up and running, the Navy has taken a second look and signed on as a partner.
While doubts remain about the laser's ability to shoot down missiles, Jefferson Lab scientists found the laser - with the proposed construction upgrade - could at least throw missiles off course by disrupting their homing device.
"We licked our wounds and came back with a credible proposal," said Fred Dylla, the laser's program manager. "We weren't talking about a nebulous, long-term, very expensive program to knock a missile out of the sky."
Instead, Dylla said, the laser will make a missile unable to find its target by disrupting its sensor - the equivalent of shining a bright light in its eyes.
"If you can foil the sensors, it's another way of doing the same thing," he said.
Critics complain such additions to the defense budget amount to pork-barrel spending that drives up costs and detracts from basic military readiness.
In his annual critique of congressional pork, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a presidential candidate and senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, complained about "more money for the plethora of laser projects that have proliferated at every lab in the country." His list of "objectionable provisions" to the defense budget included the free-electron laser project.
But Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., the Armed Services Committee chairman, quietly slipped $10 million for the laser into the Senate's defense budget after the Navy agreed to support it. The House had added $3 million.
The compromise defense appropriations bill that emerged late last week included the full $10 million. The budget must still be ratified by the House and Senate and signed by President Clinton.
"I'm really amazed how well the Virginia delegation worked on this one," Dylla said. "We're very pleased. They really worked hard on our behalf."
The construction upgrade will ultimately cost $15 million over the next three years, but two-thirds of the money would be provided under the defense bill now before Congress, which covers the fiscal year that officially began Oct. 1.
The laser, conceived in Newport News in 1990, is being tested for a wide range of commercial applications. Scientists say it holds the potential to produce everything from clothes that resist static to more powerful computer memory disks.
About $26 million has been spent on the laser so far from federal, state and private contributions.
The project is an offshoot of the Jefferson Lab's main mission: to probe the basic structure of the atom using a high-energy electron beam.
The U.S. Department of Energy provides about $70 million a year for the lab, which opened in Oyster Point about nine years ago.
Submitted: Wednesday, October 13, 1999 - 12:00am