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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Northrop opens first US laser weapons plant

WASHINGTON (Reuters): Northrop Grumman Corp. on Tuesday opened the first U.S. production facility for high-energy laser weapons, saying it hoped to benefit from rapid growth in the new class of weapons that are cheaper to operate than traditional missiles.

"We see this capability emerging very quickly. The government is moving in this direction," Mike McVey, president of Northrop's directed energy systems business, told a teleconference. "We're positioning ourselves to be ready when they want more capability."

McVey declined to say how much the new facility in Redondo Beach, California, cost but said it could be used to build three 100-kilowatt lasers at the same time, and could also do classified work for the military. He gave no further details.

"Powerful military lasers, with their speed-of-light targeting capabilities and cost-effective operation, have the potential to transform the way we equip our armed forces defending our country abroad and protecting it at home against terrorist threats," Alexis Livanos, president of Northrop Grumman's Space Technology sector, said in a statement.

The company aims to build and demonstrate a 100-kilowatt solid state laser by the end of 2008, McVey said. A weapon of that size could be used to shoot down rockets, artillery and mortar from ground, air or sea-based platforms.

Northrop officials said the life cycle cost, including operations and maintenance expenses, of a laser system was one-quarter of the cost of a traditional missile-based system.

Because lasers require only electricity to operate and no other munitions, they can keep firing at targets indefinitely, McVey said. "As long as you have fuel, you never run out of bullets ... You can keep firing," he said.

The new plant was an important step toward making lasers affordable weapons for the military to use. Northrop said the plant could create up to 50 jobs.

The Pentagon has been working to develop laser weapons for over three decades, aided by Northrop, Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Co. and Boeing Co.

The military already uses lasers to guide bombs and in laser sights and rangefinders, but has balked at fielding lasers as weapons in their own right, while it weighs international law and other issues.

Northrop said it obtained a U.S. marketing license and last week briefed the Israeli government on a system called Skyguard that would use lasers to shield airport and other installations from rockets, ballistic missiles and other threats.

The system would generate a shield of five kilometers in radius, with the cost of shielding a typical airport put at around $25 million to $30 million.

McVey said Northrop was one of four to five bidders, and Israel expected to choose a rocket defense system soon.

Northrop also expected to finalize a contract with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security by the end of the week to study the possibility of using Skyguard to protect U.S. airports.
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