WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M., Dec. 10 (UPI) -- Futuristic laser weapons under development by the U.S. military are making the transition from fodder for science fiction to reality and could soon be ready to play a major role in protecting troops on the battlefields of the 21st century.
Successful test firings have become routine for the Zeus, which zaps unexploded mines and bombs, and the Mobil Tactical High-Energy Laser, MTHEL, a joint American-Israeli weapon designed to swat down small short-range rockets and even artillery shells in mid-air.
"We could study these forever, but that's not what we are paid for," said Maj. Gen. John M. Urias, deputy commander of the U.S. Space & Missile Defense Command. "We are here to get these (systems) into the hands of soldiers."
Working quietly in the sprawling and secretive desert of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, lasers have been under development since the 1970s and now appear tantalizingly close to being ready for service in the field.
A group of 15 select reporters from around the United States boarded a small convoy of military vans Tuesday in El Paso's early-morning chill for the two-hour drive to White Sands where they were given a closer look at the laser projects being carried out in a small cluster of single-story buildings surrounded by scrub brush, roadrunners and the occasional oryx, an African game animal imported years ago by New Mexico wildlife officials in a failed scheme to improve the area's hunting.
Urias told reporters who toured the High Energy Laser Test Facility at White Sands on Tuesday that the MTHEL project would be making a step up in the often-convoluted weapons development system in the coming fiscal quarter by being assigned to a Program Executive Officer within the Army's air defense command.
Moving ahead with MTHEL means that Israel's nearly $50 million investment could pay off in a few years in the form of a mobile system capable of picking off the Katyusha rockets that were once the bane of Jewish settlements in the north of the country.
Although the Katyusha currently appears to have been largely abandoned by Arab guerrillas in favor of suicide bombs, Israel is still anxious to see the MTHEL become a reality and also supplied fire-control radar to the project as well as an aging Katyusha launcher captured from Hezbollah.
The latest test of the MTHEL came this week when it intercepted both a Katyusha and a 152-mm artillery shell in the bone-dry air over White Sands with a bevy of U.S. generals looking on.
MTHEL has proven to be incredibly accurate and is able to identify a threatening device hurtling through the sky within milliseconds, but it is not quite to the point where it is mobile enough to be packed up and sent to Israel. Program officials also conceded that its development probably could not be speeded up much despite the simmering prospect of a war between the United States and Iraq.
"We would like to accelerate this, but it depends on funding," explained Gerald Wilson, the head of the MTHEL program at White Sands. "There is a certain amount of acceleration you can have with any development program, so the question is also whether or not there would be adequate payback."
"You can only accelerate something so fast before you start having a diminishing return on your efforts, but yes, they (Israel) would like to have this as soon as possible," Wilson said.
The beauty of the MTHEL is that it conceivably could provide a defense against artillery and rockets that have sent infantrymen diving for the dirt since the Civil War.
"The only thing you can do today is hunker down," Urias said. "You dig a foxhole and you hope."
With lasers, the battlefield of the future is envisioned as one on which U.S. mechanized forces charge forward virtually unopposed while vehicle-mounted lasers protect them against incoming enemy shells and missiles.
At the same time, Zeus would be in the vanguard, clearing away cluster bombs, unexploded shells and even mines in a fraction of the time it currently takes ordnance explosive experts to gingerly perform the dangerous task by hand.
Like its mythical namesake god, Zeus uses a laser thunderbolt to heat up the casing of the target until it goes off with a weak bang.
On Tuesday, the Zeus unit -- mounted on a Humvee -- safely detonated a half-dozen mortar shells, cluster bombs and grenade-launcher rounds in about 10 minutes -- a task that civilian project manager Scott McPheeters said would today take a squad of bomb disposal troops about a half a day and a lot of nerve to complete.
"It's almost boring to do it this way," he joked, as he cited the laser's 99-percent success rate in detonating more than 800 pieces of test ordnance.
Zeus is currently powered by electricity produced by diesel fuel, however research is under way to adapt the device to a hybrid electric Humvee so the laser's power can be increased and used against buried mines, of which there are an estimated 100 million still lurking in war-torn places such as Afghanistan. There have also been discussions, McPheeters said, about using Zeus against terrorist car bombs parked on city streets.
Soldiers will still have to find the explosives, but Zeus eliminates the dangerous task of having combat engineers tiptoe up to a live bomb and blow it up with a packet of plastic explosives.
Instead, a Humvee with two crewmen aboard would be able to park 30 meters away, check the target location on a computer screen, knock out the threat in a matter of seconds and move on.
The engineers and soldiers at White Sands cautioned that lasers were not a "panacea" that would eliminate the need for battles and bloodshed, but introducing lasers could eliminate a lot of deaths and grisly wounds to soldiers and hapless civilians alike.
McPheeters enthused, "It's basically like a video game."