Two years after pulling out of the project, the Navy is ready to pump new money into a powerful laser developed in Newport News that officials say could play a valuable role in missile defense.
With the Navy's blessing, local lawmakers have inserted millions of dollars into next year's defense budget to make the free-electron laser at the Jefferson Lab about 20 times more powerful than it is today.
The proposed construction upgrade, which could take several years to complete, is expected to give the Navy a powerful new tool to protect against the growing threat of cruise missiles.
The Navy shunned the project in 1997, deciding it could not afford to invest an estimated $600 million on an unproven technology.
But now, with the laser built and operating, skeptics are slowly turning into believers.
And scientists say they have discovered a new use for the laser that might make its application to missile defense far more practical and cost-effective.
While doubts remain about the laser's ability to shoot down missiles with current technology, Jefferson Lab scientists found the laser - with a modest upgrade - could at least throw missiles off course by disrupting their homing device.
"Because of that, the very people who were opposed to our program before are now some of our strongest supporters," said George Neil, deputy manager of the laser. "There's been a major turnaround this year."
Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, balked at the project two years ago when the Navy refused to endorse it.
But this spring, Warner quietly slipped $10 million into the Senate's defense authorization bill to fund the laser upgrade.
"The research has matured in some very important ways," said Warner spokesman Carter Cornick. "He feels that continued research could be extremely productive. They've done some remarkable work."
Newport News Rep. Herbert H. Bateman, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, inserted about $7 million into the House version of the bill, although part of that money might not get spent at Jefferson Lab. Differences between the two bills will be resolved by a House-Senate conference committee sometime this summer.
The Navy's research office declined to discuss the laser project, saying it was premature to comment until the new funding clears Congress.
But there is little doubt that Navy leaders have grown more receptive to the laser since visiting the Jefferson Lab in February.
Donald Upson, the state secretary of technology - a newly created post under Gov. Jim Gilmore - escorted to the lab the Navy's point man on the project, Rear Adm. Paul G. Gaffney II, chief of naval research.
"It's my hope they're back on board," Upson said. "I think Admiral Gaffney was very impressed with the visit. It was the accomplishment of the Jefferson Lab team that sold it. There wasn't any pressure at all put on at our end."
For the lab, the Navy's renewed interest could pump new money and muscle into the fledgling laser project that officials say offers enormous potential for commercial applications with economic spinoffs.
"It opens the door for us," said Michael Kelley, chairman of a consortium of private companies that are experimenting with the laser. "It is a key enabler on the path toward commercialization."
The laser, conceived in Newport News in 1990, is expected to be used in a wide range of manufacturing processes, from precision cutting to physically altering the surfaces of materials.
Scientists say it holds the potential to produce everything from clothes that resist static to more powerful computer memory disks and fabrics that automatically kill bacteria.
The project is an offshoot of the 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 nearly $70 million a year for the lab, which opened in Oyster Point about nine years ago.
By making the laser more powerful, as the Navy funding would allow, scientists said commercial products could be mass produced far more quickly - and perhaps profitably.
"It lets you make a large number of these things to find out how they stand up in use," Kelley said. "It's one thing to make one or two. It's another thing to make 1,000."
For the Navy, the laser upgrade has a much different purpose.
For years, Pentagon officials have struggled to find a way to protect troops or civilian populations from missiles fired by enemy or rogue nations.
The task has proved daunting because it entails shooting down a missile with another missile: the equivalent of hitting a bullet with another bullet.
While the laser hardly solves that larger problem, scientists said it might offer the Navy the first practical defense against conventional cruise missiles that could be fired on its ships.
Even with the proposed construction upgrade, the laser would not be powerful enough - or technologically capable - to shoot down a missile, Neil said.
But it could be used to throw it off course.
A missile finds its target with the help of a sensor that searches for an infrared signal, such as heat coming from a ship.
By aiming the laser at the missile's sensor, Neil said, "You're shining a bright light in its eyes." The missile would then be unable to find its target.
"That was something they could believe in," he said of the Navy. "We're really thrilled to have them back. We always thought the laser would have lots of applications. We probably haven't even discovered some yet. It's still very exciting."
Submitted: Sunday, June 13, 1999 - 12:00am