The Soviet Union has chosen high energy lasers as the next arena for the East-West arms race, according to Pentagon and intelligence sources.
A recent study by the Rand Corp. for the Air Force said lasers are receiving the same high-level political support in the complex Soviet weapons development system that earlier was given to nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
As was the case with atomic weapons and ICBMs, the Soviets today are considered years behind the United States in laser research. But Dr. William J. Perry, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, told a Senate hearing this year that the present Soviet laser program "may be three to five times the scope of our own."
The U.S. operation, at $200 million a year, is "the single largest science and technology program we are pursuing," Perry siad.
In U.S. terms, Perry said, the current Soviet program would cost $1 billion.
"My concern is not where we stand today; it is where we will stand three or four years from now at the present pace," Perry said.
The idea that one side or the other will someday come up with a laser weapon that would destroy targets by a directed beam of energy has long facinated arms builders.
The practical problems of transferring laboratory laser successes to battlefield conditions are considered insurmountable by some prominent scientists.
Nonetheless, both countries are now hard at work on solving those problems.
Perry told a congressional committee this year that although the United States has had some experimental successes with test laser devices, "We are still deciding whether we want to introduce high-energy laser as weapon systems."
With the commitment of money and personnel that the Soviets have made to lasers, Perry added, "They will have high-energy lasers built and introduced into the forces whether or not it is the best thing to do."
"The fundamental discovery of how to generate high-energy laser beams," according to Perry, took place in 1966. Since that time, the United States has been attempting to create a laser beam generator that could be applied to military needs.
In 1973, the Air Force knocked a drone (pilotless) aircraft down with a laser.
Three years later, the Army demonstrated a laser that could hit both a drone aircraft and a dron helicopter.
Last year, a Navy laser experiment was successful in intercepting a small missile.
The laser research programs of the three services currently are coordinated by the secretary of defense, whose own research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is working on lasers to destroy satellites in space.
The Pentagon programs have advanced to a point where money is being sought in the fiscal 1980 budget to establish a high-energy laser test range at White Sands, N.M.
The Air Force is transforming a KC135 jet tanker/transport into a flying laser laboratory, equipped with laser test devices that will be fires at ground and air targets at the White Sands range.
The Navy and Army will also use the range.
The Soviet laser programs are also going into what are called rudimentary "test bed" programs, according to a Pentagon source. That is, they too; are putting laser devices aboard aircraft, on ships and on vehicles to see if they can be operated outside laboratory environments.
Unlike their earlier major nuclear weapons development programs, the Soviet laser research activities do not appear to be "unified," sources said.
The leading Soviet nuclear laboratory, the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, does research on both military and civilian atomic projects. It is also at work on laser problems, sources said. In addition, the research institutes attached to the various Soviet military services and the Soviet Academy of Sciences all reportedly have laser projects going.
The Rand study reported that, although there has been large-scale political support for the laser research, it has produced "little observable success beyond the realm of science." In short, it hasn't yet come up with a feasible laser weapon.
Defense Undersecretary Perry told a Senate committee recently that despite "the significant momentum" in the Soviet laser program, he had no recommended increasing the U.S. program.
"I don't believe we are ready yet to convert our technology into weapons he said. And at another congressional session he added that "the cost-effectiveness of high-energy lasers with missiles and guns" will influence the U.S. decision.
On the Soviet side, however, intelligence analysts believe that the current commitment means the effort will not fail, and lasers -- effective or not -- will eventually be introduced.