Scientists developing a powerful new laser in Newport News for defense and commercial use may soon find themselves without a valuable ally: the U.S. Navy.
In its first setback since the collaborative research project got under way a year ago, Congress appears likely to deny any new Navy money for the free-electron laser under construction at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Oyster Point.
The Navy has never been an enthusiastic partner in the project, which holds out the promise of offering a new weapon to shoot down cruise missiles from ships. The Pentagon has never volunteered its own money for the research, which in past years has come only at the insistence of Virginia lawmakers.
But now, even Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., a staunch supporter of the Newport News laboratory, appears unwilling to fight for a project that could easily be classified as pork-barrel spending by out-of-state lawmakers, particularly because the Navy doesn't want the money.
Warner, a former secretary of the Navy, said Wednesday he was unable to secure the funding, based on Navy reservations about the project.
"They just simply do not want it," he said. "They do not feel the continuation of this contract is in their interest."
And without a turnaround in thinking by the Department of Defense, Warner added, "We're not doing it. We've got a tight budget."
The Senate defense spending bills for the coming fiscal year include no money for the laser project. And prospects appear equally dim in the House.
Rep. Herbert H. Bateman, R-Newport News, won $9 million for the project in the House defense authorization bill. But when a companion bill came out of the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday, any explicit allocation for the laser money had disappeared.
Project officials insist the likely elimination of Navy money will not hamper the laser research, which is funded through an inventive stew of federal, state and private-sector dollars.
"We're very disappointed," said project manager Fred Dylla. "The bottom line is our plans for upgrading the device will have to be delayed. But it's not going to slow down anything over the next year."
In fact, with $3.7 million in Navy money coming in this month from a previous allocation, Dylla said, there is plenty of money to keep the research on track - and plenty of work to do.
"We're actually quite thrilled with where we are compared to a year ago," he said. "The building is complete and companies are moving equipment into it."
But ultimately, officials acknowledged, a lack of Navy participation could begin to erode the alliance of support for a project that annually costs millions for an uncertain benefit in future years.
"Over the long term, we would need to find some other partners," said Michael Kelley, a senior research associate at Dupont Co. and chairman of the laser consortium. "The key thing we need to do is to go have successful results. Then there are all kinds of possibilities. So far, in this phase, we've just had to ask people to believe."
The most willing believers in the laser have always come from private business leaders who see the potential for a host of new products and manufacturing methods that could be produced or performed faster and cheaper with the new technology.
The laser device, conceived in Newport News in 1990 by scientists studying the inner workings of atoms, offers the potential to produce everything from clothes that resist static to new textures for fabrics and draperies that automatically kill bacteria plaguing allergy sufferers, supporters say.
The laser, a controllable beam of light generated by electrons, will be about a million times more powerful than a supermarket laser scanner. If it works, it will give manufacturers the ability to cut through materials faster and more accurately and alter their surface in new ways.
"It's a very useful machine," Kelley said. "Sometime next fall we ought to have a pretty good story to tell."
But the Navy, by all appearances, is not willing to wait that long.
The project was sold to the military on the grounds that it could shoot down missiles faster, cheaper and more accurately than current technology allows.
"We view this program within our office as a priority," said John Albertine, the Navy's manager of directed energy weapons programs. Because of the laser's speed, he said, missiles could be shot down more quickly, even if they were detected late.
"Essentially, you'd be engaging the threat at the speed of light," Albertine said. "It's an unrealized potential at this point. That's what the research is for."
But higher up the chain of command, Navy officials view the project more critically, particularly because of tight budget pressures and frozen levels of defense spending planned for the coming year.
Warner, who met with Navy researchers last month, said they remain unconvinced of the laser's ability to be used aboard a ship.
Sen. Charles S. Robb, D-Va., another longtime backer of the laser project, said he is trying to sort out conflicting claims about the laser technology that may determine the fate of any new defense money for it.
"I'm trying to find out whether the Navy's position is well-founded," Robb said. "If it is in fact well-founded, then we would have to honor it. I don't think any of us are in this for a pork project."
Bateman, who secured laser money last month, spent part of Wednesday trying to figure out why the project lost favor in the House Appropriations Committee this week. He said through a spokesman he would have no comment until he could further investigate.
In the Senate, the funding was blocked by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a fiscal conservative who heads a key Armed Services subcommittee that oversees military research.
"Because the Navy did not support it, Sen. Santorum had serious concerns about using their funding for this project," said spokeswoman Laura Narducci.
Santorum met with Warner to relay his concern. Warner then met with Navy officials, hoping to win an endorsement for the project that he could sell to the Armed Services Committee, on which he is the second most powerful member. But after a 90-minute meeting, Warner said, he got nothing but opposition.
"That was the end of it," he said.
Submitted: Wednesday, July 23, 1997 - 11:00pm