laser fills vital need, officer says
Ellen M. Pawlikowski, who earlier this month assumed command of the Air
Force's top weapons project, says its success ultimately will change the
face of war.
The Airborne Laser Attack Aircraft
(officially the ABL, but some call it ALAA) is designed to use a powerful
laser to destroy enemy ballistic missiles in midair shortly after launch.
It is aimed primarily at countering the
threat posed by an increasing number of rogue nations acquiring the
capability of launching theater ballistic missiles, like the Russian-made
Scuds that caused havoc in the Gulf War.
But the project, whose 75-person Systems
Program Office Pawlikowski now directs at Kirtland Air Force Base in
Albuquerque, faces some survival issues of its own.
Most immediately it is a target on the
administration's budget-cutting radar screen. A big target.
The $1.2 billion project currently is
outfitting a Boeing 747 freighter with a missile-launch detection and
tracking system; a Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser; and an adaptive optic
system that instantly corrects for atmospheric distortions and keeps the
laser cannon accurately on target.
After a change-of-command ceremony in which
she accepted not only the ceremonial flag for the project but also its
high-profile objectives, Pawlikowski said she is up for the challenge and
still hopes the Airborne Laser Attack Aircraft will meet its demonstration
target of shooting down a launched missile in 2003.
A chemical engineer who earned her degree
the University of California at Berkeley, the 44-year-old colonel
previously has served in a variety of capacities, including deputy
director of the Global Powers Program at Air Force headquarters.
Tribune: How important is the
Airborne Laser Attack Aircraft project?
Pawlikowski: It's an exciting program
that is on the cutting edge of technology and that is bringing a vital
capability to the Air Force: a weapon that will be able to shoot down
missiles over the enemy's own territory very soon after launch.
It's a real weapons system that will be
revolutionary and that will give us a tactical advantage because nobody
else has it.
Tribune: If that's true, why is this
program facing budget cuts?
Pawlikowski: The Air Force was faced
with some tough budget decisions, and the chief has asked for a $92
million cut in next year's budget. We will be able to continue the program
but at a slower pace.
If the cut remains, it probably does mean a
delay in the shoot-down demonstration in three years, pushing it back a
year or two.
But, no, we won't go away. The Air Force is
solidly behind this project and we want to do the shoot-down, to
demonstrate this capability is real, as quickly as we can.
Tribune: But is this weapon important
to the country, and why should citizens and taxpayers care about it?
Pawlikowski: The importance to the
country is tremendous. If we can bring it to the battlefield, an adversary
is less likely to use their missiles. It prevents their capability to
threaten our forces or our allies and it increases our ability to make and
keep peace in the world.
If we have it, our adversaries say why shoot
(a missile) if it's not going to get there. So it's not just a new weapon;
it's a deterrent because we not only can shoot that missile down, but
while it's in flight above the country that fired it. And they have to
think about that in terms of what's going to fall back down on them.
Also, direct energy (lasers and other
intense focused beams of energy) has many applications. The ABL -- which
is a clean, effective and efficient weapon that is much cheaper than other
weapons developed for the same purpose -- is the flagship for directed
energy. I think it will open the door for other applications of directed
energy in the military. But first we have to show we can do it, that it
really does work.
Tribune: How do you like Albuquerque
as your new home?
Pawlikowski: I'm really enjoying it
and New Mexico. Aside from a little altitude adjustment, so far it's been
This is my first time living in Albuquerque,
though I have been here before from time to time. I like it because it's
friendly, a relaxed place and a really refreshing change from Washington.
Interview With . . . appears Mondays in The Tribune.