The TRW-built Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) weapon system tracked and destroyed a Katyusha rocket in its first live-fire test on 6 June. Preparations are under way to begin testing the laser weapon against multiple rockets by mid-July, according to US Army project officials.

The THEL advanced concept technology demonstration, which is sponsored by the USA and Israel, is primarily geared to developing a weapon against Russian Katyusha rockets that threaten northern Israeli cities. The US Army may field a smaller version for use in South Korea and for peacekeeping/contingency operations.

The event was the first of a series of THEL live firings set to take place at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, before shipment to Israel in September or October for additional evaluation.

In the test, an armed Katyusha rocket, which was captured by Israeli forces in Lebanon, was fired from a launcher. Seconds later, the THEL weapon system, located several kilometres away, detected, tracked and engaged the 3m (10ft)- long 122mm rocket with its high-energy chemical laser. Tests will look at THEL's capability against a Katyusha rocket salvo. Details concerning its maximum range and firing rate are classified.

In 1996, the USA and Israel agreed jointly to fund development and test of a truck-transportable THEL prototype, which includes a deuterium fluoride chemical laser, a pointer-tracker, command and control subsystem and a fire control radar (FCR).

Supporting TRW are Rafael, Tadiran and the Elta division of Israel Aircraft Industries, which provides the FCR, a quarter scale version of the Arrow FCR.

"We've just turned science fiction into reality," says Lt Gen John Costello, head of the US Army Space & Missile Command. "The THEL shoot-down is a watershed event for a revolutionary weapon."

Israel has yet to disclose how and when it might deploy the weapon. The US Army is drafting an operational requirements document for a significantly lighter, more compact THEL variant. The demonstrator under test weighs 181,600kg (400,000lb). Senior US military officials recommend procurement of a High Energy Laser System Tactical Army weapon that could be fielded by 2010/1.

Source: Flight International