Oral History Transcript — Captain James Wilson
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James Wilson; September 26, 1984
ABSTRACT: Wilson's training and naval background; Early ONR Laser R&D unknown to him; learns of the AVCO/Hughes laser program; visits to AVCO-Everett Research Laboratories and his impressions of Arthur Kantrowitz; decision to invest in gas dynamic laser development; awareness of the Triservice Laser (TSL) Study; David Mann's management of the Eighth Card Program; the poor relationships between the Navy and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA); Wilson writes an Advanced Development Objective for a High Energy Laser program in the Navy; The Triservice Laser Program is established; planning the Chesapeake Bay Navy Triservice Laser; Navy Contract funds for laser developemnt; Service Coordination; PMO-405 established; following the carbon monoxide laser development at Northrup; building the Chesapeake Bay TSL Site; Walt Sooy and the organization of the Laser Technology Program Office; the Fleet Defense Module; Science Applications Inc., and systems support for the Navy HEL Program; shift to the chemical laser; success of the Baseline Demonstration Laser; carbon monoxide laser not a serious alternative; dealing with safety considerations; the sinking of the Coastal Crusader; the Navy philosophy of test bed development and a comparision with the Strategic Defense Initiative; systems engineering; the engineering staff of PMO-405; The DOD High Energy Laser Review Group; results of damage study; pulsed laser work: Thumper, Big Bang, Big Big Bang, Pulsed chemical laser; adaptive optics; reflections on the Navy High Energy Laser Program & its bureaucratic difficulties; transfer of PMO-405 to Al Skolnick; Sooy leaves NRL.
We are with Captain Jim Wilson to talk about his experiences in military laser research and development, especially at the Navy High Energy Laser Program, PMO-405. Good afternoon.
Seidel:The first question I'd like to ask you is how you got into this game. Do you have any particular scientific and technical background that would cause the Navy to choose you for the High Energy Program?
Wilson:In fact, it was the other way around. I chose the High Energy Laser Program. But to give you a fuller answer, in the Navy I'm what they call a fairly technically educated person. I went to the Naval Post-Graduate School, so I have engineering degrees and master's degrees in engineering in a broad variety of disciplines. So I have a fairly broad engineering-oriented training, so I followed duties that were both line, which means drive the ships and operate the ships, and at the same time do R and D programs, so I've been in the guided missile business, in the Rand D business, and surface to air missile development. I was a test conductor in the Polaris program for three years down at Cape Canaveral. So I've had a lot of technical assignments as well as operational assignments. So in due course my duties brought me to Washington, in 1967, January. I was the assistant branch head in the R and D Organization of the Chief of Naval Operations Office, and I was assistant branch head of the surface warfare branch, which meant that we looked after the research and development for all surface ship equipment, which included the weapons. We were aware, when I came on board in 1967 to look over that research area, that we had a lot of aircraft and missile threats to the surface forces, so we were always looking at the weaponry and trying to develop future weaponry, and that was a function of the office. So we didn't know anything at all about lasers or high energy lasers.
Seidel:All the services do have research offices that sponsor extramural research, and in the Navy of course the Office of Naval Research, which has been the lead office in the early high energy laser research programs, but you indicate you did not know anything about this when you came on board?
Well, you have to remember that in the Navy, ONR, the Chief of Naval Research, and the research laboratories may have been in early stages on specific laser technologies, but they were never, at that point in time, in any significant way, in laser weapon research because it hardly existed then and there was no money in it then, and I'd be surprised if you found any. They can .go back and rewrite their program elements to say that was laser research, but in effect there was essentially none, and nobody in the operating Navy in the CNO's office had ever heard of it. So it was a zero knowledge point in time, as far as that was concerned.
Seidel:'Well, of course you were aware of the existence of the laser at that time.
Wilson:Oh well, I'd been following it myself since it was invented.
Seidel:Did you have any feeling that it might at some point be a feasible weapon?
Wilson:No. No, because I followed the conventional wisdom that as long as it was glass lasers and low powered gas lasers, that those were going to be for instrumentation and range finding and we were going to see lots of opportunities there, but not as weapons themselves, because the power breakthrough hadn't occurred yet. The limitations were still the common wisdom and I wasn't paying a lot of attention to it. You already know from Ed Gerry how they brought that along up at AVCO and that was a little earlier than I got to OPNAV. So, my knowledge, when I got to OPNAV to start worrying about surface warfare Rand D, was essentially zero with respect to high energy lasers. I didn't know that it existed, or that there had been a breakthrough. I didn't know that.
Seidel:How did that change?
Wilson:How that changed was that I'd been there three months, and I got a call from a Dr. Mal Stitch, and a Dr. Diederich, Frank Diederich, and Dr. Diederich was from AVCO and Mal Stitch was from Hughes, and they asked for an appointment. So in due course I gave them one, and they came in and closed the door and said, "We want to show you some things." So Dr. Diederich and Mal, as it turned out, were collaborating. There was an agreement between AVCO, Everett Research Laboratory and Hughes to kind of jointly work this promising new gas dynamic laser, and parlay that into a weapons system, and so they came around to show me what they had, and expose me to it. So that was my first exposure and that was somewhere in the spring of '67, I think it was, just after I'd gotten there.
Seidel: At this time I know that Ed Gerry and some of his people were going around marketing the gas dynamic laser to the services. Was this part of that effort?
Wilson:Yes, this was part of the effort, and Mal Stitch and Frank Diederich were the road show that largely went around and did that, and I'm sure Ed marketed it technically to DARPA. After I was exposed to it; then I immediately started looking into it, because it was very interesting and exciting and so I immediately started to look into it. Of course, we had no money available at that instant of time to put into it. It developed, however, that they had already talked to one of the other Navy offices, the Naval Air Systems Command, and there was a guy by the name of Webb Whiting who is still there, and he worked in a portion of the Naval Aviation group over in the Materiel Command that dealt with electronic warfare, a lot of black programs, measures, 'counter-measures, things like that, and he had been earlier exposed to the AVCO technology, and had spent some very small amount of money, and I don't know what the dollar value would be but it was very small, it can't have been more than 100 K and probably more like 20, he spent some small amount of money starting to look at it, from NavAir, so there had been, there was that slightly prior —
"Who" was the contractor?
Wilson:I don't know who Whiting was spending the money on, but he was starting to look into that technology in terms of what it might mean as a weapon for the Naval Air Systems Command, but he had not done much with it, and hadn't said anything about it to anybody. So when I of course got exposed to it, why, then, of course, I started making a program out of it, because I could sort of see where that would lead, and as soon as I looked into it, I discovered that it was an ongoing program out of DARPA, and it was run then out of DARPA STO, Strategic Technology Office, and the head of that was Dr. Dave Mann, and he was running it as a compartmented program which went by the name of Eighth Card.
Seidel:So Eighth Card was already started?
Wilson:Eighth Card let me hedge that. Either it was just before he compartmented it and made it Eighth Card or it was right at about that time, in the spring. Either he had just done it or he was in the process of doing it, because I remember that in going over to DARPA to start looking into it, what Stitch and Diederich had been showing me, and find out what they were doing, why, I think I was immediately inducted into the Eighth Card effort at DARPA. You know, indoctrinated into the compartment.
Seidel:Put on the distribution list.
Wilson:Put on the distribution list, and Dr. John MacCallum, as Air Force lieutenant colonel, was in the DARPA office, and he was associated with Dr. Mann, so I got to know John MacCallum. There was a Navy commander there at the time whose name escapes me but I don’t think he was ever directly significantly involved. He was just there. So I started to see what the Air Force was doing and what the Army was doing, and I thought I’d better see what was going on. I did go down to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory and saw Colonel Lamberson to see what was happening down there, and went through some program reviews with DARPA. Then, of course, in the meantime I started immediately trying to see the applicability of the technology to a ship-borne weapons system, because the big threat was missile attacks on the ships, and we didn’t have a good program. The program we had was the AEGIS, the long-range surface-to-air missile, but we didn’t have a short range weapon. We didn’t have enough money in ’67 so either we could have a long range outer air battle type weapons system, or we could have a point defense close-in defense system, but we couldn’t have both. The CNO’s board of directors voted for the long range system, and therefore we couldn’t have a short range. So that decision had been taken in 1967, and so we were looking around — what are we going to do when the leakers and the ones they miss arrive on our doorstep? What are we going to do about it? So the high energy laser looked like just the right kind of a thing, if it was going to be feasible. By the fall of ’67, I went up to AVCO and looked at everything, traveled around, talked to Ed and some of the guys who were up there, and sort of began to satisfy myself that something really was there.
Seidel:What they had there was, what, the Mark V?
Wilson:I forget what they called it, but it was a very small, I think, if I remember their history, they had done a small one on the bench of about a kilowatt or so, and then they’d scaled that up slightly to whatever they called the next version of that, and that was the one they were hoping people and they were taking high speed photographs of the thing.
Seidel:Probably the Mark V.
Wilson:Probably the Mark V.
Seidel:They built one for SAMSO out in Los Angeles.
Wilson:They've got the movies and films of that. I don't know whether you've seen them?
Seidel:No, I haven't, and Ed Gerry doesn't have them. Was it a good show?
Wilson:It was for people who had some sense of what it meant. It was pretty clear. One of the targets was of course a "Gee whiz", it was a tailfin off of an airplane; in fact, it was one of the Aveo employee's airplanes. They just stuck it up in front of the thing and it burned a hole about that big, in front of the camera, with the clock running, and it all happened you know in a fraction of a second: pretty impressive.
Wilson:Arthur Kantrowitz was the director of the laboratory, and chairman of the board and director of the research laboratory, a very energetic, articulate, very forceful guy who liked to get things done, accomplish things. I thought he did a heck of a fine job in driving that laboratory towards accomplishments and so forth. A very enthusiastic, outgoing, extroverted kind of guy, who really drove along, so I liked him, still get along well with him. They had other people like George Sutton and Detchek, Ed Gerry, Wally Schafer of Walter Schafer Associates and Ed Gerry became the president of Wally's company and Wally was there in that program at the time.
Seidel:You're coming from an engineering point of view here. One of the things that Gerry concedes about Aveo was that while they were good at research, engineering and development is not one of their strengths.
Wilson:They haven't changed.
Seidel:Yes. So, did you think they could do the job as far as scaling up or you couldn't begin to worry about it at that point?
Wilson:I wasn't worried about it at all, because I knew it had a long way to go before that hardware was going to turn into anything, because there was just no way you could take that anywhere, in its existing form. It was going to have to evolve, and my recollection is that as, by the time I'd been looking into it for about six months and had finally satisfied myself that there was enough substance to this technology that it needed to be pursued, since I did in fact control money, I started scrounging a little money here and there, getting a few hundred K's of fiscal '68 money available to begin some studies.
I know that at different times in the history of the DOD, people would think different ways about long term developments. So apparently what you're saying, in '67, you could be happy feeling that this might take 10, 15, 20 years to develop? Did that bother you very much?
Wilson:Well, I was always an optimist, and still am, and therefore my timescale, long to me was going to be five to seven years. I knew, historically and in practice that things are 10 to 15 years and the mean time at that time was like about 12. I knew that history, but I kind of felt that that might be engineered into a first serious demonstration of the capability in about seven: I kind of had that kind of a mental thing, that you might be able to push it fast enough to have something useful as a first generation thing in about seven years.
Seidel:One of the elements in Aveo folklore is that Kantrowitz went to Foster, and sold the Triservice Laser idea to him. As I understand it now and r don't know exactly the time frame, after that meeting with Foster took place, there was a few weeks study that was conducted. Were you in on that study?
Wilson:Yes. Somewhere in and around that late '67 and toward the beginning of calendar '68, why, this Triservice Laser idea emerged. I guess I wasn't in personally on the actual study and preparation, I just observed that it was happening. I was concentrating on what the missions would be for the Navy, and it was pretty clear a defense was what we were looking for and looking at, as the obvious use for the thing, and —
Seidel:It seems to me from what you've told me that before whatever decision was taken by this panel, I can't remember offhand if Jennings was there or Honeycutt was on the panel.
Wilson:Yes, Honeycutt was on it too.
Seidel:But I gather it took a few weeks to have this study, and I don't know whether the decision was reached before or after by Foster, but it seems to me from what you've said, that there was a prior pitch to the Navy, that actually Kantrowitz's people and Hughes and Aveo had gone around and already brought the services into the picture, before this proposal was made to Foster.
Wilson:They had, because I might not have found out about it at all if they hadn't, because Mann tended to run things very tight to his vest, and I might not have found out about it for a couple of years, if they hadn't exposed me to it, and then I went out digging to find it.
Seidel:May I ask you to speculate on this? I know that Mann's particular mission that he had in mind was a space based ABM mission.
Wilson:Yes. He was in strategic technology. That was what he was in the business of.
Seidel:And I know that the Air Force in this same time frame said, "Well, it's not going to work for ABM particularly well, but it might work for aircraft defense", and you were thinking of your mission?
Seidel:Is there a conflict inherent in that situation? Did you find in conflict with Mann, with the Air Force or the Army? Or is it more ARPA against the services? Or was there any conflict?
Wilson:If you want to pick on the Navy-ARPA relationship that was a very poor relationship, definitely worse than the Air Force and worse than the Army. Of the relationships between DARPA and the services, that with the Navy was the worst, and still is.
Seidel:Why was that true at that time?
Wilson:I think it was the attitude of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Rand D, Bob Frosch, who is currently the chairman of our Naval Studies Board, whom I like very much. He and the laboratory people and the ONR people viewed DARPA, as having a large pot of money doing fun but advanced things. They felt they should do that work, and therefor money in DARPA's hands should have been money in their hands to do things with, and things that they would rather have done, and therefore they viewed DARPA as simply a loss of resources which they should rightly have had to do with what they wanted to do. So that community thinks like that and still does.
Seidel:What was your view?
Wilson:Well, I didn't have any of that background and to me it looked like an opportunity, and so why shouldn't you get in there with DARPA and help try to make some technological thing work with some expectation of using it. Another factor that clouded the relationship with the Navy, at least, was that DARPA would tend to run with the ball on these ideas. They had in their minds what it was going to be good for, but they weren't very successful in bringing the Navy in on it, and on a couple of other occasions before my time in OPNav, DARPA had produced a "gee whiz" wonder and then, with Johnny Foster and others there, turned around and said, "Here, Navy, here is this gold watch, put it on your chain".
And the Navy discovered, after they'd made up their budget and everything, they had to provide money that they hadn't planned for, weren't sure they wanted, and they got stuck a couple of times, on other programs. And so they'd had unhappy experiences of having suddenly found themselves stuck with a baby on their doorstep that they didn't want, and had to pay for, and had the lifetime care and feeding of thereafter, and so they didn't like that. So the Navy assiduously avoided dealing with DARPA, wouldn't even talk to them, wouldn't even assign officers to DARPA, because you know DARPA runs on a kind of a service relationship and they detail officers and it turns out there are a couple from the Navy now but not then, but I thought that was an abominable state of affairs, was rather shocked by it. But that's the way it was, and we listened to the people down in the Secretary's office, or at ONR and other places, and there they wouldn't give DARPA the time of day, wouldn't even answer the phone, usually, OK. But this was going on and I said, "Gee whiz, what a tremendous asset that is, why aren't we using it?" So I went on my own campaign to try to rectify that, and I even got finally, by just sheer dint — this is a sort of an aside, since you asked the question — of spending some extra time, I even went through and got the Navy Personnel Office to authorize six Navy billets to be assigned to DARPA, to kind of get some balance back in there, because there was only one naval officer in the whole place, and all the rest were Air Force, and I said, "Hey, is this all going to go to the Air Force? We need some of that."
Seidel:You were working in OPNav, but who did you have to go to get the billets assigned?
Wilson:I had to go to a number of officers and places and say, "Look, this is wrong," and I finally, I just made a campaign out of it. I said, "That's stupid for the Navy to not be involved in that", and so through extracurricular activity, I actually got it. Finally the Secretary of the Navy, when it got up to him, said no, and so they never did it. All I'm doing is emphasizing the fact that it was an active dislike and an active intent not to cooperate.
Seidel:There's another aspect of this I'd like to get into. In each of the services, of course, I guess the Navy reputedly is a little worse in this regard, there are establishments: within the Navy, bureau chiefs, and one of the establishments is the Naval Research Laboratory, which is somewhat separate from all the rest.
Seidel:And you say in '67, you're looking into the high energy laser business.
Seidel:Now, the place where high energy laser work of any kind was being done was NRL.
Wilson:Yes. I did go over there and start looking to see what was going on and who was doing what. I didn't see very much that impressed me. I was underwhelmed, if you will, but I went and looked: I started looking around for what we were going to do with this to try to make something out of it. So I spent the first six months starting to understand it and trying to figure out what we could do with it, and in the spring of '68, I got enough of a picture to write the first operational requirement, the first ADO, Advanced Development Objective, for the high energy laser, and so that's the way you did business in those days. You had to have a requirement.
Seidel:You could write that yourself?
Wilson:Yes, and I did.
Seidel:You're in rather a unique position in that regard, among the services.
Seidel:The other program managers often had a devil of a time getting operational requirements from their services.
Wilson:I had to get it signed, but —
Seidel:I mean they had user commands. You're sort of coming from a user command and you can do it, but they were coming from Rand E commands and they had to sell it in their service. That was a real advantage for you.
Wilson:So I found about 250 K or some number in that range, for '68, and I wanted to kind of get started, and I wrote the Advanced Development Objective, and Dr. Frosch was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. When you get in the Pentagon, a lot of people find that the huge bureaucracy is a very frustrating kind of place to be in, because it's the usual business of everybody can say "No" and darned few people can say "Yes", and a lot of people are just stuck in the bureaucracy like that, can't hack it, and they throw up their hands and quit. I found out after about three months that, I don't like to lose; I want to do something, so I found a way to work the system. I found the way to work the system is, you had to go around and spend 10 or 15 or 20 percent of your time on cultivating individuals in other places, because you were going to need to work that chain if you just inside the Navy. I had enough to worry about without thinking about the others at that point.
Seidel:What responses did you have?
Wilson:So I had to learn the business, having had the first briefing from Mal Stitch and Frank Diederich, I had to learn what it was, how it was going, to work, what you might expect it to do.
Seidel:Now, in learning that I suppose you were to some extent assisted by the fact that you had worked with rocket technology before, so that aspect of it was fairly straightforward.
Wilson: I was always on the front end of the technology, whatever it was, so this was just another one, so I took to it because I kind of liked it. I said, "I'll see what I can do with it." I ended up being fairly persuasive, after I had understood it and had kind of worked the problems for a while, so that I was able then to go ahead and write the ADO, and I wrote it one morning and went to see Dr. Frosch that afternoon. I got it all written and signed in a day.
Seidel:Was this independent of the Triservice Laser organization?
Yes, we hadn't come to the Triservice Laser yet. But I got a Navy requirement document in the system which said, "We want to be in this business", and I found a little bit of money to put in it... So then the Triservice Laser idea is sort of the next thing that happened. I started going to meetings. The Eighth Card was having reviews and things were going on, so I went to all of the meetings and the more I went, the more I learned and the more I was able to push things. Then the Triservice Laser idea came up, and the idea was to buy three of the gas dynamic lasers.
Seidel:This is spring of '68 now?
Wilson:Well, I wouldn't want to say exactly when the Triservice Laser idea came up, but it had to have been sometime in '68, because I didn't end up having to put up the money for the Triservice Laser until I think it was in '69 fiscal year, which was in July, you know, the beginning of the fiscal year, split that way, so I think I was at least into calendar '68 when the Triservice Laser idea came up. We didn't really have much to say about it. It was more or less directed out of OSD. But they said "You're all going to have one, and you're also going to pay for it". I didn't mind. I thought it was a good idea, so I was supporting it. I forget what the budget was, but it was about, I think I found about $2.5 million all together, of which I think maybe our share was $1.3 million or something, I forget what it was for the first year, the beginning of building a Triservice Laser.
Seidel:Is this FY '69?
Wilson:I think so. Part of the '69 money. We were scurrying around looking for a place to put it, and that turned out to be Chesapeake Bay. The Naval Research Laboratory has a facility on Chesapeake Bay.
Seidel:I should say at this point that there is a wonderful collection of photographs in our oral history archives showing the building of that facility, two of the engineers describing each photograph on tape. It's the only place in the services where it's actually possible to look at the building of a TSL as it was being set up.
Wilson:So I think that fiscal '69 was when the Triservice Laser began. So it began with an early increment of money from each of the services, and then the contracts were let and the thing began.
Seidel:Was it about this time that the work at NOL — shock tube and GDL work there, began?
Wilson:There was shock tube work at NOL, and they did a little bit of work, but that was almost independent. They sort of did that on their own. In other words, I wasn't controlling all of the Rand D money at this point in time. The way it was divided, the Chief of Naval Research had the 6-1 research money, and he pretty well spread that wherever he wanted, but that money generally only went to NRL, but they may have parceled some of it to White Oak to NOL. The 6-2 exploratory development money was controlled by the Chief of Naval Development over in the Naval Materiel command, and they parceled money various places. I don't have an accurate recollection or track on what bits of technology may have been going on.
Seidel:I was interested in that program, because, the book. On the gas dynamic laser as written by John Anderson, their one standard source. I’ve never been able to track it back to the larger program.
Wilson: I see. I can't fit it for you.
Seidel:So you chose NRL?
Wilson:I hadn’t even got to the PMS-405 yet. I was still sitting here in Po 723, and by then I’d become the branch head. I’d started out as the deputy and then I became the branch head.
Seidel:What was the branch?
Wilson:It was just the surface warfare, surface warfare R and D 723. So it was all happening from there, and literally I was the only sponsor, because that’s all Op 723 is, the sponsor, but since I also had something to say about where the dollars went, I was able to keep shunting money into it, not very much, but I’d gotten about $2.5 million into the, after the first little installment on the Triservice Laser, and from that time it progresses into the seventies. I could be a little bit early on the Triservice Laser in my recollection of it, but the Triservice Laser came fairly early in the game.
Seidel:I think that's about the right time frame. What you're saying is that most of the money you're pumping out is contractor money.
Wilson:It was 6-3 money which is advanced development money. That's the only kind I had. So it was going over into the systems commands some place and then going from there to the in laboratories and centers, White Oak being one of those, and NRL was not in my chain of administration, because the CNR (Chief of Naval Research) reports to the Secretary, not the CNO (Chief of Naval Operating). And so did the Chief of Naval Development, he sort of wore both hats but he owed his allegiance to the Secretary, not CNO. The Deputy Chief of RD T and E, Op 0 7, was the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, so the CNO owned the 6-3 and up money. So I was only playing with 6-3 money so I had to follow that chain.
Seidel:But that was bigger money.
Wilson:Bigger money than the others, that's right. By the way, that's an interesting point. When I wrote the ADO that advanced development requirement — and it was 6-3 money, and Dr. Frosch agreed to its being 6-3 money because we could foresee the growth of it. Even then we knew it was going to get bigger, and we also knew that you couldn't, that it would swamp the 6-2 category, and therefore we made a decision, we being Dr. Frosch and a few other key guys in the Chief of Naval Materiel and a couple of other places, and said, "Yes, we know it's 6-2 or even 6-1 that we're going to be doing, because it's so early on, but it's going to be so big that it will get "micromanaged" and eaten up and the competition in that arena will be such that it will choke the system, so let's start out with it in 6-3 and everybody really understands that it's really 6-2, but it's going to get big and you're going to build things".
Seidel:You didn't find it terribly difficult to reach that kind of an understanding?
Seidel:I know the line is pretty well drawn in the services.
Wilson:It is. We didn't find that a problem. We just all agreed, that is what we're going to do.
Seidel:OK, so this is all a response to GDL technology.
Wilson:All a response to GDL technology.
Seidel:Were you aware of XLD-l yet?
Wilson:No. Still working on the AVCO technology. And once they found out that I had money and was putting it into something, why, I began to meet a lot of other people from everyplace else, like Northrup and everywhere else that was starting to get into the business, so my horizons and contacts there spread out quite a bit after that. And all I can say is that we just kind of grew, and my money curve started going up in each successive year, until '71, and it was going up pretty fast in '71 because Triservice Lasers were really coming into existence, and the buildings were being built and so on and so forth.
Seidel:How closely related was what you were doing to what the
Air Force was doing?
Wilson:Oh, by that time there were regular meetings. There was a key person. DARPA was the big player, but there got to be a manager in DOD in the strategic office, and it was a kind of a half time duty between space duties and directed energy weapons, high energy lasers. So there got to be an official down in DDRSE.
Seidel:Now, Cooper was there at one point. Who was his predecessor?
Wilson:His predecessor I think was Howard Yudkin, and I forget what order they came in. Bob Greenberg was after Cooper. Cooper was before Greenberg and Yudkin was before Cooper. I think Yudkin may have been the first one, and he was I think perhaps already in place as the deputy in the Strategic Office for Space end of things, and so he just kind of picked up the laser as a collateral kind of a thing. So there got to be a central DOD focus for it, and while DARPA still continued to be the big program player, there was the DOD presence. So I pretty soon went to all of the meetings that there were. Pretty soon there were coordinating meetings, and yearly program reviews and budget justifications, all of the usual things, so we tended to coordinate our positions reasonably well, so we at least had an agreement not to step on each other.
Seidel:The other service managers at this time were, Lamberson?
Wilson:Lamberson. Lamberson was at AFWL.
Seidel:And who was at MICOM?
Wilson:I don't remember who that was. Buford R. Jennings was there all the time. The colonels tended to rotate at lot.
Seidel:Presumably Jennings was really sort of running the show.
Wilson:He was sort of basically the consistently ubiquitous deputy.
Seidel:So you were here when the Air Force, the first TSL, had all kinds of problems?
Wilson:Oh yes. I traveled around to all the places. I went down to the Army place and looked at what they were doing. And so forth. So anyway, the programs were building up till '71, and then it was quite clear that with the TSL, rather the Triservice Lasers were coming on line and so forth, and by that time we had been doing studies and so forth, to show what the possibilities were, and were beginning to look at the systems aspects of the thing, and it was pretty clear that the whole growth of the entire program was exponential and still continued to show a lot of promise. And it came time to have a Navy Program Office, because up till now, it had just been, I'd just been the sponsor, controlling overall where the bucks went, but there were other individuals in various centers and labs who were executing all these responsibilities.
Seidel:Who were you relying on in the Navy for technical advice at that time, NRL?
Wilson:Nobody in particular, but NRL to the extent that there was any. I forget what the timing was. Walt Sooy can cite that better than I, as to what the timing was. But Walt, you remember, was at Hughes, and built the beam director for the Air Force. And we started having annual big meetings, in which we brought in everybody that had a laser, and had a big meeting.
Seidel:Was this the LPTO?
Wilson:Yes. We were starting to get into that.
Seidel:That was before PMS-405?
Wilson:No, I don't recall that.
Seidel:I have a feeling, looking at the first meeting minutes, that it was already in place, the PMO-40S was in place.
Wilson:Well, I can tell you how PMO-405 started. That was what I was about to — let me get through with that. In the normal course of events, officers like me are not supposed to be any place longer than three years, and so I had made captain by that time. I was commander and made captain, and it was time to go, and the detailers said, "OK, you've got to go out. You've driven a destroyer but nothing counts unless you've driven a big ship, so now we've got to send you off to drive a big ship for a year and a half and check off that box on your promotion thing".
But I could see that I liked the Rand D business, and I could see that the laser was going places and I liked it. So I decided, hey, why should I go drive a ship when I maybe can keep pushing the laser along? And the second thing is, enough other people had complained about the paths for promotion, in a highly technological evolving Navy, that driving a ship shouldn't be the only criterion for being promoted, so the Secretary of Defense had started a Major Program Manager in which selected programs of high interest, high value programs are sort of designated as major programs, and the Navy was enjoined to embrace that philosophy, and so some Navy programs were designated major programs, and the incumbents of those jobs were able to check the box for promotion by having had that kind of job as opposed to driving a ship. It put you in a different path, but at least it was a path that led to further promotion. That idea was being talked about in 1970. It hadn't happened yet. But the detailer was trying to send me to sea, and I finally wrote them a letter back and I said, "Hey, I don't think it makes sense for me to go and so I think I'll just stay here, thanks very much", and he said, "OK, you'll never hear from us again".
Seidel:Did you have a feeling you were kissing your admiral's bars goodbye?
Wilson:That's what they said, and that's what was probably true. But I said, "I'm not going to go that route, I'll take my chances this way."
So I just burned that bridge in '70, and stayed with it, and that got me extended a year, so now I was able to get all the way through '70, I'd gotten there in '67, and so I was there four years. Lo and behold, they did make the major program manager a legitimate avenue of promotion, and then they designated the first Navy programs that were major programs. So I said, "OK, I can make the high energy laser into a major program, and so I spent the early months of 1971 working with Frosch, the Secretary, and the Chief of Naval Material command, Admiral Gallatin, and two key guys in the naval material command, and said, "This program is taking off. We need a program office and it ought to be a major program and the Navy ought to be in the forefront of this technology." And so, to make a long story short, I basically engineered the establishment of PMO-405, by basically selling Frosch, selling the Admiral, Chief of Naval Material, and Chief of Bureau of Ordnance, Admiral Mark Woods, that that's what ought to happen, and they agreed. So they said, "Fine, we'll have that", and all I had to do was get myself transferred over there to take the job, of course, without telling the detailer, because the detailer wasn't supposed to know, so we worked out a subterfuge that had me getting relieved. I spent a month trying to find a relief, some captain to come in and relieve me, but I found one and worked it so he got ordered in, in June — and then I had to have a place to go, so Admiral Woods said he needed an administrative assistant, at the Ord 0.1., over there, to Captain Hal Castle, and so Mark Woods had the detailer write me orders to relieve Captain Castle in Navord, and so I worked it all out, got a relief on board, got myself detached, and they forward it in the next day on July 1st, 1971, and when I walked on board and Hal Castle said, "Welcome aboard", Mark Woods told him that I wasn't going to relieve him, that I was going to set up PMO-405, and that it had all been set and was written in the charter and so forth. And so PMO-405 began on July 1st, the day I got to Buord.
Seidel:A couple of obvious things occur to me. You're talking about the carbon dioxide gas dynamic laser.
You're talking to a technical man and you say, "you know, propagation problems ...”
Wilson:But nobody knew that. Nobody knew that in the Navy. I know that. But after all, I was only going to work on a point defense weapon. So I figured out – while I wasn't trying to go ten miles, I wasn't trying to compete with AEGIS, and I figured, we can make that thing go for a couple of miles, and that will be a point defense weapon, so, and there was no problem in pushing that, and meantime the chemical laser work was beginning to be sort of in the wings…
Seidel:... About '69?
Wilson:… They were starting 'to get some things, and I was looking
around, and I was… out sniffing the carbon monoxide lasers out at Northrup," and the Northrup people were trying to get me to put some money into the carbon monoxide lasers.
Seidel:That was the Air Force program?
Wilson:Yes, but it was mostly an idea of Northrup, and their laboratory, which was trying to push it, and it sounded and looked like a pretty neat scheme. It got rid of a whole lot of problems. It also had problems.' I never ended up putting any money into it, but it was an interesting alternative technology. So I looked at it anyway. Didn't spend any money on it. So that's how PMO-405 got started. It was, I just decided, it was time to have it and went out and created it. I had to go out and I had to sell it to all those people, but I did.
Seidel:Bill Condell had the idea that there was some other captain in this business ahead of you. What could he have been thinking of?
Well, Captain Levitt was the head of the surface warfare branch.
Seidel:Maybe that was it.
Wilson:And certainly, and since he was there for a year while I was still deputy — but I picked up the laser and started pushing it, and pushing it through Captain Levitt. So yes, it's true that Captain Levitt was there as a branch head.
Seidel:That's not the name that he gave me, but he could be confused about that.
Wilson:Yes. I don't think that there was anybody else who was a significant player, in promoting it as a program.
Seidel:Well, that's good; I'd hate to think I'd have to keep going forever.
Wilson:So anyway, so on July 1st, I got over there and became PMO-405. I didn't have an office, so I was attached incidentally to the same Captain Levitt, who had since gone to another tour and then come back to Buord, and he was in there in some of the gun and weapons programs, and so they just attached me to him in order to have a place to hang my hat, and while they looked for office space and a staff for me, and so we started working on a staff, and I picked up one guy who's still in the program, Efram Eisenberger, and pretty soon, the Secretary and the people had decided that they wanted White Oak in the business, so they volunteered White Oak as the laboratory to support this weapon idea.
Seidel:That was because it was then a Naval Surface Weapons center, to be?
Wilson:To be. It hadn't become that yet.
Seidel:It was more associated with the surface weapons business than NRL or other labs.
Wilson:That's right. So they picked that lab, and my deputy program manager was Kurt Enkenhus. He's still there at White Oak. And I picked out two or three other guys from White Oak. The main one was Enkenhus but then he left later, went back to White Oak. And Dave Merritt was the other one who came from White Oak and he's still in PMS-405, and, if you want to know the real corporate history, he's been the plans and programs guy for the entire time. He probably has more overall corporate knowledge about what happened than anybody does, because he's been there the whole time and he's been the planning staff.
Seidel:Had these people been working on the GDL work?
Wilson:No. No, they were all cold. They had to learn how to spell laser, too. They weren't in the laser business.
Seidel:Oh, really? What business were they in?
Wilson:Whatever they were into as laboratory, engineers and something or other in the laboratory. No, they weren't in the laser business.
Seidel:For a G.3 program you'd rather have this kind of person anyway?
Wilson:Yes. You're going to start to make something, pretty soon, see, so you have to have a systems house kind of mentality.
Seidel:So these are systems engineers.
Wilson:Yes, as opposed to an NRL. You really don't want an NRL. You need a laboratory or a center that makes things. They have to make torpedoes and other stuff, and they did have light gas guns, so they knew about projectiles and things like that. It's a house that's used to making equipment.
Seidel:But on the other hand, as you said before, this was 6-3, but actually doing 6-2 work?
Wilson:It was very 6-2 work, almost 6-1 work.
Seidel:So the staff is going to plan for the distant future, as far as you're concerned.
Wilson:As far as I was concerned. So the mode of operation was to get a contract support house, which, through competition was SAl, to provide you that kind of expertise, and to do the studies and analysis and so forth, which, of course, we weren't capable of doing in-house, and then, very shortly after getting the office up and running, we had our first budget battles and things like that, and continuing to support the Triservice Laser effort, and doing all the things that a major program manager does, in building staff and getting more office space and working up more programs and technological things and studies, just kind of building that all up. Then we began to think about, what comes after the
Seidel:The technological studies, you're turning out the early ones, are all connected with the TSL?
Wilson:All connected with the TSL — what you're going to do with a carbon dioxide gas dynamic laser.
Seidel:It's still up at AVCO; it's not come down yet to Chesapeake Bay?
It hadn't come to the Chesapeake Bay yet, but we were getting ready to bring it there.
Seidel:So this is when the construction began.
Wilson:Yes, right. That's right. We actually built our own tunnel. The tunnel was in the building structure and so forth, so we — and then of course, very quickly on, we had these coordination Triservice meetings and things like that, and I listened to Dr. Sooy make a presentation, when he was still at, Hughes, and so I met him there, just briefly, and then 10 and behold he turns up at NRL, left Hughes and became the director of the Optical Sciences Division at NRL. I didn't do that. He just popped up there… Sooy was dropped in my lap. So it didn't
Take very long at all for me to make NRL my scientific and technical house.
Seidel:Now, this is an interesting story. I was convinced by Louis Doummeter that Sooy had been the brains behind LPTO.
Wilson:Oh, LTPO, yes.
Seidel:And Sooy said, "I had nothing to do with setting that up, that was all PMO-405's idea". So now it's up to you. Who are you going to blame?
Wilson:Well, me. So it isn't as if we hadn't started spending, and getting some work done, at NRL, but it was on a catch as catch can; not an organized effort, and NRL was doing its independent things anyway, and so it was looking into the laser business, and so I wouldn't say that they weren't, by that time. They were. But it was not fully organized. Lou Drummeter, I think was the deputy, to whoever was the Optical Sciences Division before, and then Walt came in.
Seidel:And they reformed the division.
Wilson:Reformed it and as soon as I discovered that Walt was there, it didn't take long to gin up the idea of having the support office there. And we had to get somebody to run it. Walt of course being did a lot of the main running of it. But John MacCallum, Lt. Colonel MacCallum, U.S.A.F. Retired, was in the process of retiring from the Air Force, and so I prevailed on Walt to go out and hire John, because John had been there from sort of Day 1, in DARPA, knew the business. He's a PhD, anyway, and knew all of the optics business. So he qualified.
Seidel:Now, in organizing the LTPO, there's a high powered advisory panel. Jennings was on that. Gerry was on that. Of course, Sooy was on it. There were three or four other well-known names in the business.
Wilson:Yes. That's right.
Seidel:Were you responsible for organizing that, or was Sooy or …
Wilson:I think it was mutual between Walt and myself, that we should have such a thing, so we did.
Seidel:I had a feeling when I looked at that, not to disparage the Navy in any way, but here is the Navy in a sense, behind the other services, at least in terms of getting the hardware in place, because the Air Force has been in this business a long, long time and sponsored all the early DARPA work. That there was what is clear here or would seem clear from looking at the list, is you're getting the people who made a career in the other services to tell you how to catch up. Do you have that feeling, or did you have a feeling you were on a par with them or…?
Wilson:No. I thought we were behind the Air Force. But I thought we had a leg up on the Army, but we would probably never catch up with the Air Force. So I never even thought in terms of doing that. I just said, "Let's get the best we can". I guess, in terms of some people, I took a lot less parochial view of things. I was more interested in trying to get something interesting done and make things work. I spent a lot of my time trying to jockey things around to make things happen, and you've just got to do that by persuasion.
Seidel:How often did people like Lamberson and Jennings actually show up at these meetings?
Wilson:Well, they began to get settled on a regular basis. I think it was sort of after Howard Yudkin, they began to formalize into a regular function, and then it was always thereafter run at the OSD office.
Seidel:I'm talking about this particular advisory committee that you had.
Wilson:They worked, I think for the time that we did that, because that didn't continue, it was kind of a phase —
Seidel:About a year?
Wilson:Yes, it wasn't a long thing. They were very helpful and did show up. Yes.
Seidel:And Gerry by this time is at DARPA?
Wilson:Now at DARPA.
Seidel:And he was working closely, too…
Seidel:Now was Mann, more or less out of the picture?
Wilson:Mann was already beginning to step in the direction of the Navy. He was already beginning to lean in the direction of the Navy, and started to join the ENO's executive panel, and then from there he stepped out of DARPA into the Navy. Mann's an interesting piece of history all is own.
Seidel:So. I understand…
Wilson:But no, I never had any personal problems with Dave Mann myself. I never had any difficulty with him. But neither did he seem to be much of a factor here by this time.
Seidel:Ed Gerry was more of a factor … with Dave Mann neither did he
Wilson:That's right. I think Dave Mann had sort of ceased to be a factor.
Seidel:So by this time the Triservice Program was working pretty smoothly?
Wilson:Yes. Sharing data as best we could, and going around to other people's places and having meetings and working on things, and looking at the newer technologies. By that time — so by about I guess '72, we were well settled into a plan for a demonstrator. We sort of knew that the TSL's were going to work and we were going to get data and so forth.
Seidel:The Navy planned the Fleet Defense Model to serve as a test bed for the high energy laser experiments, like the Army's MTU and the ALL.
So the question is, will you tell me how this idea arose?
Wilson:Well, I had an advisory apparatus, the LTPO, and then a special group of advisors, and then I had the SAl as a contractor, and I had some high level people.
Seidel:Who was at SAl that you were working with, by the way?
What person stands out there?
Wilson:I didn't really have anybody in my own mind who was the personification of SAl. They were just generally technical guys, high technology was their bag. There was the local office, and there were some people there who seemed pretty smart and pretty persuasive, and so I think we let a small initial contract for help from SAl, and then as we continued to grow, we needed help from SAl, and Walt Sooy knew John Connolly who was in the Boston area, and so he suggested that we persuade SAl to move John from Boston to Washington to head up the SAl support effort, and so John did agree to do that and did come down, and he became the real, the first really main SAl guy for the ever increasingly ambitious effort. And so we were getting advice from the SAl people, and then the other advisory group we had was giving us ideas. Lamberson was already planning the ALL and was planning that test bed, and the MTU was an Army one; and somewhere the idea took place, we have to take the next step, and the next step is to demonstrate the thing, and so then the argument got to be, "Well, where shall we go with it, down to White Sands with the Air Force? And do that? Or can we bypass… that? So I think, with a lot of discussion, we persuaded ourselves that if the Air Force could bite off the ALL, we could bite off the Coastal Crusader. We had to go find the ship so we spent a lot of time looking for the ship and so forth.
Seidel:What was the Coastal Crusader?
Wilson:Oh, it was an old merchant hull out of World War II. We finally settled on the Coastal Crusader, and we decided that, hey, if Lamberson could think about putting his system in an airplane, we could surely put a system in a ship, and even if we had to pour the whole optical bench in concrete, we could do that, and we had plenty of room. We didn't have to worry much about whether it would fit or not. And besides, we thought we could do that with not very much more difficulty than taking it down to White Sands and pouring a concrete slab at White Sands.
Seidel:I take it you mean a concrete slab that would be floating, gimballed or something?
Wilson:Yes, gimballed or something. So we finally decided what the heck, we ought to be able to do that, and we put the program together and sold the program of building the next generation Navy system and putting it in that ship and trying it out. And so we started working with Hughes on the beam director…
Seidel:Which is the NPT (Navy Pointer Tracker)?
Wilson:…the NPT. Chemical lasers, and scale-up gas dynamic inception of the gas And TRW had been doing well with the so we had started the whole idea with a laser, and the program went forward from the dynamic laser and the Hughes Pointer and Tracker, and we started the whole process of putting that entire system together. I kept watch on the chemical laser technology, and it was marching right along also, and pretty soon there were some key experiments, I think, that TRW had done, that became pretty convincing that the chemical laser technology was going to be manageable, and that it would scale.
Seidel:On August 3, '73, you wrote DARPA to propose an DARPA/Navy Baseline Demonstration Laser, and what you wrote at that time was, "the ease with which high power was achieved and the rapid advances in mixing and pressure recovery which are expected justify aggressive development of high-powered chemical lasers for a broad spectrum of applications," and you wanted $2,900,000 over two years. I guess DBL got 100 kilowatts or something?
Wilson:That's right. It wasn't quite that much, but yes. It was a big number for those days. Yes. So, while we had started down the CO2 laser road, it was pretty convincing that the chemical laser looked like it was going to make it, and we already knew that the propagation window in the atmosphere was going to be a whale of a lot better, and once they'd made that demonstration and it became convincing, why, basically right then I decided we were going to change to chemical.
Seidel:There was the period just before that when the carbon monoxide laser looked like a promising alternative candidate. How serious was the thought of that?
Wilson:I guess I never entertained the idea of switching to carbon monoxide. I was sort of toying with the idea of maybe putting a little money in to look at it, but I never did it. It never quite looked like it was going to work.
Seidel:What was the problem, the bad lines?
Wilson:The lines were the problem. They were so narrow. I wasn't sure. I never made those technical decisions all by myself. I wasn't technically qualified. But the advisors that I had said, "Hey, that's a little bit of a shaky thing, playing with cells, and you're going to have to try to get the laser run on lines that it doesn't like to run on, and how are you really going to be able to do that?" And then they had this scheme, kind of a super-cool system, an expansion thing, and the whole thing had to run at low atmospheric pressures and low temperatures, and they had some neat schemes to do that. Northrup and the lab never really quite made it work on the bench — they never could quite get it to get a convincing demonstration that they knew how to do it.
Seidel:Essentially Northrup was really pushing it.
Wilson:It was Northrup that was pushing it. It was Don Hicks who was the head of the research laboratory at the time. I think what's his name? The Indian fellow. I'll think of it in a minute… (Manny Bhaumick). Anyway, they were pushing it very hard. But we didn't, I didn't buy it. It looked too shaky. And in the long run nobody bought it.
Seidel:It's interesting that you went for the chemical laser quickly, because Ted Jacobs remembers, what he does remember is that Don Lamberson did not go for it? Did you talk with Lamberson about that?
Wilson:Yes, we talked about it and so forth, but he was locked in to GDL. He had no way of getting off that horse. There was no way to do that.
Seidel:Was there anything about TRW that made it attractive as a contractor to you, from your prior experience with them?
Wilson:I did not have any prior experience with them at all.
They were new to me.
Wilson:I didn't know him before. I guess they were impressive in the sense that they had a pretty spirited and enthusiastic team of guys. Jack Martinez was sort of a key guy down there, in the research section, was driving that. They did some good things, and they had a facility, and they used it. I thought they were pretty impressive, to have gotten that technology to the state that they did, to the point — and then of course they did the BDL. So there was no doubt about it after that.
Seidel:What was Sooy's position vis-a-vis the chemical laser? He was associated with the gas dynamic laser development?
Seidel:Did he resist the decision to switch?
Wilson:No. No. He went with it very readily. Internally, we didn't have any trouble making the decision.
Seidel:In making the decision, were the chief considerations the efficiency of the thing, or the atmospheric transmission?
Wilson:The atmospheric transmission.
Seidel:That's the biggest argument.
Wilson:That's the biggest argument, yes.
Seidel:You didn't worry too much about effluence at this point?
Wilson:Everybody worried about it. I figured we could beat it.
Wilson:Well, I'd seen enough of other systems. Even though, it's kind of a funny thing — there's lots of reasons, in a closed environment of a ship or submarine, to be concerned about what's in the atmosphere, and its right to be that. But I had also experienced the fact that we carried nuclear weapons all over the ships, and yes, there were tritium hazards, and there were radiation hazards there, and we managed to do that because we wanted to. And if you go in a submarine, you'll find cryogenic systems and you'll find all kinds of atmospheric control things where they worry about the gas, and the fact is, they solved those problems because they had to solve them, and so they lived with it. I figured that even though the chemicals were bad, that we would be able to manage that. I’d been on ships with large oxygen tanks — I wouldn't put oxygen in the same class, but a big tank of liquid oxygen isn't exactly a friendly thing to have around if something goes wrong. Yet we did it. So I just decided that, "Hey, yes, it’s mean stuff, but we'll find a way to handle that, just like they handled these other things." Every time a new hazard comes along, everybody throws up their hands and says it's impossible, but when they discover that they need it and have to have it and want it, they find a way to live with it.
Seidel:Who throws up their hands in this case?
Wilson:The ship safety people. The Buships people said, "Gee, we can't have that." I said, "Yes, we can."
Seidel:Well, it's an interesting perspective — I mean, in thinking of things from the 6-3 level, and also from the perspective of your experience with ships — you cut through the thing by saying, "If you really want to do it, you can do it," because similar things had been done.
Seidel:Which is not to say that flourine has been controlled anywhere, but that similar engineering scale projects can be accomplished. That's something that might not come out of the laboratory, where they don't know that.
Wilson:That's right. And after all, we carry a whole magazine full of ammunition and explosives, all of which leak and give off fumes and we live with that. So I just decided that, hey, that was not going to be an overwhelming, overriding technical thing that we couldn't lick — that we would lick that.
Seidel:There was a little document you sent in to DARPA that has a picture of the Coastal Crusader firing on the first page, and it has comparison of GDL versus CL. I remember reading that one of the arguments that you proposed there was that it would be a shorter time to getting the FDM working with the chemical laser than the GDL. Now is this an act of faith? Is this what TRW is saying?
Wilson:Yes. That was pretty much it. I have no doubt that we could have made the GDL work. I didn't have any problem that I could make that work, it's just that I was pretty sure that the chemical would work better and I could work it as fast, in about the same time frame that I was going to do for GDL. I just, I didn't think I'd lose any time, which it could be done. After all, TRW did that pretty fast, you know, that BDL. We contracted, you know, right away for the NACL, which is still being used. And I didn't have any problem with it, because I saw what they'd done and how long it took them to get as far as they did with the BDL. I thought, it will scale out, and we won't lose any significant amount of time.
Seidel:Well, in making the decision for the chemical laser to what extent had the studies of propagation with the TSL influenced you at this point — you say that was the main argument? Would you say that between '69 and '72, this argument had really solidified, had become overwhelming against the BDL with you, or was it just that suddenly you had advantageous atmospheric windows?
Wilson:That's what I looked at it as.
Seidel:It was not that you had despaired of the GDL?
Wilson:No, I really had not despaired, but it was clear that the chemical laser was going to be better and you could have it in the same time frame, and so why not do that? And I was not so far down the GDL path that it couldn't change. But you had to make up your mind, and so we said, "OK, we'll go for it." So we did.
Seidel:So this decision is August, '73.
Seidel:And how long prior to that did the Coastal Crusader get sunk by Bob Cooper?
Wilson:Well, Bob of course always wanted to do everything at White Sands. See, when Bob came in, he came from Lincoln Labs and was used to research facilities and things like that, and his view of the world, when he started working the problem, was, let's do it in the good old Lincoln Labs way and we'll put it in some place where we can get at the innards of the thing and we don't have to worry about the environment, and besides, I'll make it a National Test Range, and that way we'll share the financial burden amongst a larger community and it'll have a critical mass then, being a big thing, and Triservice, it'll survive, and besides, we'll learn more generic technology out of a thing like that, and then let the services spin off the applications from that. Well, that was his philosophy and attitude from Day 1 going in. So, I don't think that Bob ever viewed the ALL and the other things as any more than expensive deviations from basic technology, bringing it to a point where you could then spin it off. We had the idea that if this stuff was going to extrapolate at all, why not? If you go back and look at what we talked about earlier, 12 years is the mean time to get something, and sometimes it's 15, and it's hardly ever less than 10, except you did the atom bomb in about three and you did Polaris in about three, so the system could if it wanted to. So my thought was, if we put our minds to it, we can take the next step in a vehicle, and by doing that, you will face a whole lot of the problems to begin with that slow you down. If you do everything serially and you go out and prove the technology, you know, in a laboratory type environment, even though it's down at White Sands, all of the other problems you have set aside, and you don't address them. And those are the practical problems in fielding a working thing that somebody can use, and you never do any of that work, so that's what takes 10 or 12 years is, you don't do that other work, and so you've spent five years and a lot of money and then you discover it works — Eureka! — now I have to go and make one, and now you're in another five or six years, because now you have to invent all of the other stuff. The same thing is true in the SOI (Strategic Defense Initiative), when you come to look at all the directed energy weapons candidates for space systems, against boost phase or mid-course attack, and reactive threat, and then the systems guys run all of the studies and say which ones do you want to put your money on — the only one that survives is the chemical laser in space. Why? It doesn't have a power supply. What about power supply? Nobody is spending the money today to solve the power problem that such a system would require. They're all intent on proving that the laser works, that the particle beam generator works, and you have to do that, but at the end when it all works and you say, now I want to put it in space, you also now have a many-hundred-million-dollar, seven-year development program to find lightweight power supply that will run it. And of course, when the Fletcher study ran all of that, all of the systems that require electrical power to be successful all fell off the wagon, in the long run, because no one knew how to extrapolate the power capability.
So, if you never face-up to what the whole system is going to be and take a total systems approach to it, it will become a serial program which will take you 10 to 15 years to do. And we said, "Hey, this looks like it's not that far off but why can't we take both steps, and by going into a vehicle, we force ourselves to address at least to a first order most of the other problems, ,that you're going to have to do"?
Seidel:OK, but now there are three systems efforts you're talking about. There's the Airborne Laser Laboratory, a gas dynamic laser technology and all the plumbing that goes with that, then the Army's working on electron discharge lasers, and the power supply problems are never quite solved.
Wilson:Never quite solved.
Seidel:Now, you are employed beginning in '73 now to work on the chemical laser system. How far did you get with that before Cooper rings down the curtain on this act? I'm interested in what you're — as you're talking, I can see an engineering flow chart, with the different lines of systems that you're going to have, we should get this by this time, and if we work hard, we'll get this — so, the longest time frame is what you're worried about?
Seidel:And you got to that point where systems analysis was employed?
Wilson:Yes, we had gotten to that point. You may remember from our funding scale that we were in the 50 million a year range by '75, and where did the Coastal Crusader come apart? Well, we had the systems analysis people going through what would the weapon do and how will it be used, and is it going to be effective, and how will it fit in the Navy force structure, so we had all that kind of thing because you know, here comes a new thing down the pike, so we had an effort to try to say, how is it going to work and how is it going to fit into the Navy force structure? In the broadest sense, we had a group that was looking at that. And then we simply had the program, the rest of the program, divided up into the parts — you know, the laser, the optics, and the platform.
Seidel:With Hughes handling the optics, TRW handling the laser…
Seidel:Who was handling the platform?
Wilson:We had the Ships Systems Command doing that, because it was physically in the Ships Systems Command. So we had them doing that.
Seidel:So this was simply, how do you modify the Coastal Crusader?
Wilson:At this stage of the game it was, how do you modify the
Coastal Crusader, to take this kind of a system? And all of the things that you would have to do. So it was a ships engineering job and it was done by the Naval Sea Systems Committee.
Seidel:What were the plans? How were you going to maintain a fairly steady optical train on a ship at sea which is pitching and rolling?
Wilson:Well, the design of the NPT contemplated all of that, so it was, as opposed to the Air Force system, this had more gimbals in it…
Seidel:Three gimbals instead of two?
Wilson:Three gimbals instead of two, and we were going to handle it through the NPT, and we hoped that all the beam conditioning from the laser and so forth into the thing, that we could manage that on an optical bench and with minor compensations in those loops. But the pitch and roll would all be handled by the NPT, so…
Seidel:So the optical bench itself is going to be mounted rigid to the ship, as far as the plans went.
Seidel:Now, was the ship on hand?
Wilson:Yes, it was available. Yes.
Seidel:So you were actually beginning to look at the ship, where you would put it, and how you would configure it.
Wilson:We couldn't actually get the ship but it was there. We were drawing the plans and visiting it, and so forth.
Seidel:Well, now, of course, EOTPO by this time is doing a lot of the advising and you have a staff of your own and these are the engineers that are working on this aspect of things…
Wilson:That's right, yes.
Seidel:On the ship, so people actually physically in PMO-405 are either working on taking the laser or NPT into the ship or?
Wilson:Well, not quite like that. Our staff never got big enough to do anything more than manage and direct the work. It all got done someplace else.
Seidel:OK, so most of these are PM types, engineer types.
Seidel:I hadn't quite understood this. Sooy was saying, you had a technical staff, I didn't know if they were research types or development types or PM types.
Wilson:That's right, my staff wasn't all that big and we didn't have enough depth to really actually do things. We depended on contractors for a large part of it. The White Oak contingent was responsible for the systems aspect of the thing, and handled that work, and then managed the various contractors. We also had the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins as a piece of our apparatus.
Seidel:What were they supplying?
Wilson:About five guys and they worried about things like vibration and some of the optical parts of the thing, small pieces.
Seidel:You mean the isolators?
Wilson:Well, I'm hard pressed to think just what they did do. It was just another FCRC. I only bring it up to illustrate that we used pockets of talent, but not our own. We only could manage the thing, and try to make decisions. We contracted almost everything.
Seidel:What happens between that and when FDL gets canceled?
One thing is HELRG.
Wilson:Yes, HELRG was up and running then and we were having meetings, two or three times a year. That, HELRG of course was not really a decision making body. It was more of a communications form and gave the DDR and E guys some kind of a mechanism to look at parts of the problems, parts of the programs, look into technologies and so forth.
Seidel:One of the things they were talking about in '74 was pulsed lasers as opposed to EW.
Seidel:Was that of interest to you?
Wilson:Ah yes, we were paying close attention to that, because we, in fact, you know, I funded Thumper, which was the Aveo electrical thing, so we built that, so yes, we were interested in pulses, because that's another way to beat the propagation, so…
Seidel:Now, Thumper was a single pulse device.
Wilson:Yes, it was.
Seidel:And it was followed on by Big Bang and Big Big Bang. Were those funded by the Navy as well?
Seidel:And those were all in the pulse laser technology?
Seidel:Was the chief question that you were interested in just the propagation and coupling issue?
Wilson:There was, from the damage and lethality point of view, there were reasons to think that pulses might be good, and from the target energy coupling point of view, might be better, and from propagation point of view would be better. So we wanted to look at pulse-type systems for those general reasons. Since nobody knew how to pulse a chemical laser at that point in time, the only thing you could pulse was an electrical laser, so in order to continue to investigate those areas; we had to build large electrical lasers.
Seidel:A little later on, I guess, there was a pulsed chemical laser program.
Wilson:Oh yes, there now is. There still is. And they still haven't quite got it.
Seidel:But you weren't going for it at this time.
Wilson:No, we knew it was possible, but we weren't to the point where we thought we could face into that technology. No one had an idea yet as to how to really make it work.
Seidel:One of the studies I read, was an analysis of a point defense for an aircraft carrier, which is obviously the target you're thinking of defending most predominantly using a laser system and burning through a fused missile starting with the optics at the front, and all the systems intervening — the idea seemed to be, first we'll get at its optics. If that doesn't stop it then we have a few more seconds to get through the guidance. If that doesn't stop it, then we get to the high explosive, and that should stop it.
Seidel:Were you making these kinds of studies or having them made at this time, too?
Wilson:I don't recall that we explicitly looked at that. We knew that of course with a lover r squared weapon, that range was an advantage, and that what you describe was a scenario that generically would be right. I don't think that we thought about continuously irradiating all of that way.
Seidel:I wonder about what you thought you learned from the Thumper and Big Bang experiments, what was the value to the program?
Wilson:Well, I guess the first thing was simply the sheer fact that you can get that big a pulse out of that volume. That gave you some encouragement of the scalability of the energy for that kind of a thing. I think that was almost the main accomplishment. We thought that was useful because we still had the feeling that pulses might be good, and to be able to get pulses of that magnitude at that stage of the technology was pretty good. Subsequently then we did a number of damage tests and so forth, and I think, at least while I was around, — we never had a comfortable satisfied feeling of how sure we were of the real pulse, the real significance of pulse in damage and lethality — I never was really satisfied that the tests that I was aware of that came out of those programs, how much we really knew when they were all through. I think we still didn't know.
Seidel:There was the theory that you would get blow off pulse
Wilson:… and yes, you could see things. Yes, you could see shielding, you could see plasma, you could see a lot of different things, depending on what it was" but I never felt like we, we said “Eureka!” … we really, settled the issue of this or that...There was always a cloud in my mind as to whether or not there were some really definitive results out of that.
Seidel:So you were comfortable continuing the work on the CW chemical lasers?
Seidel:Now, another fairly big project that you got into about this time was with Pratt and Whitney's XLD-I, and Lincoln Labs.
Wilson:To develop adaptive optics, yes. Well, it was pretty clear that even moving from carbon dioxide to deuterium fluoride, that was going to buy us a lot and made it worth doing on that basis, but we were also going to have to do a lot to clean up the beam, If we were going to have a useful system, to get the energy on the target. So it was pretty clear that we were going to have to go after beam control and compensation, so we just at that point said, "We've got to get into that." And get on with it. So Pratt & Whitney was putting a lot of effort into the XLD-I, and wanted to be in the mirror business anyway, and had some expertise in that line, so they made a proposal at some point, so we picked on them and put some money in there to make some mirrors.
Seidel:Did that mirror work out very well?
Seidel:It did work? It was pretty expensive, wasn't it; cost a lot more than it was planned to?
Wilson:Ah yes, It turned out to be pretty hard. But yes, I was fairly pleased with it.
Seidel:Was it about an 8 actuator system?
Wilson:It was a fairly small number. I don't remember the number.
Seidel:It was not a big one.
Wilson:No. I'd been up to Itek and a lot of other places, and looked at the image compensation and things like that, and I could see what was happening in that field. So I was satisfied in my own mind that generically, that technology of adapting and modifying a surface was a good idea, and that we would probably be able to make that work. And it was well worth pursuing.
Seidel:How important was it that you got ARPA in on that?
Wilson:Well, you know, we talked earlier about Navy-ARPA relationships. All I can tell you is, they never got any better, but I was something of an exception. I believed that you ought to work with DARPA and so I practiced what I preached, and it was an asset, and so it made my money go further.
Seidel:Because they put in quite a lot of money.
Wilson:Yes, and they were willing, and so heck, why not?
Seidel:Where was NRL on this? They were just technical monitors?
Seidel:They didn't do any actual in-house research?
Wilson:Oh, a little, but it was not a significant thing. Lincoln Laboratories, we had in it, they started participating, and they did a lot of the optical instrumentation and things like that.
Seidel:That was Lou Marquet?
Wilson:Lou Marquet and those people, and they did a little analysis work for us, too, Vic Reese and some others up there.
Seidel:I gather it went from $531 thousand to $1.2 million?
Seidel:The cost overrun business.
Seidel:Which I never, I don't, I still don't really have a sense of that as a significant cost overrun.
Wilson:No. Costs are all phony to begin with.
Seidel:And in connection with this, there was also a study called GLINT that came along. Was that while you were still with PMO or was that after your time?
Wilson:I don't remember. I remember GLINT but not particularly.
Seidel:There was some big study, of the specular reflection from targets and what that would do to adaptive optics. So those things were going on. I guess you were talking to the Air Force about their ideas about the adaptive optics?
Wilson:Yes. We were leaving the mirror coatings and all that to the Air Force and we weren't trying to get into that part of the business, but we did think, the adaptive optics was something that had to be done and we were doing that. We thought we had the problem-more than the Air Force did, being down in the lower atmosphere with slower moving platforms and so forth, we needed to worry about the quality of the beam, whereas up at altitude and flying by with a good wind sheer across the beam, why, we thought they had; less problems, therefore were less motivated.
Well, you have particular problems with stagnation zones and all that sort of (crosstalk)…
Wilson:… all that sort of thing, so we thought we had the problem worse than they did, so we decided to tackle it.
Seidel:Was Sooy the man who thought most about these things?
Wilson:Yes, he was the principal; I would consider Walt to be the principal scientific mind in the group.
Seidel:And you felt you two worked pretty well together?
Seidel:Despite his earrings. I always wonder when I see pictures of the Naval Research Lab. I've been over there and that's a fairly strict place.
Wilson:Walt really shook them up.
Seidel:Let's see, what else have I got here? Well, of course, this propagation study of the TSL was making some contribution there; I suspect less for the chemical laser. I have a final question to ask you to comment on. At the second High Energy Laser Conference, a little bit after you'd left the business and Al Skolnick had taken over, Malcolm Currie noted that the Navy had built the most problematic high energy laser mission, because of the character of the atmosphere and the ocean, and also the most pressing need because of its high value targets and the missile threat.
Seidel:For which the laser, for reasons we talked about, was a highly promising answer.
Seidel:In a way you've sort of indicated that you were always optimistic that this would result in a good weapon.
Seidel:You can look back now and see that it really hasn't happened, up to this point.
Seidel:And it looks more unlikely that it will happen now than it did in the mid-seventies. I wonder if you have any thought on what the whole enterprise was worth?
Wilson:Well, having been in the Rand D Business, you know, at various times, and watching the process, I've kind of come to have a sense of the dynamics of it, in a given organization, and I thought, as long as I could maintain the momentum and continue the pressure and drive the thing towards the goal, I could bring the establishment along with me, and that worked, but the organization is dynamic too, and the people change, and
circumstances and times change, and things have a characteristic life of attention, and as the money went up, in the 6-3 program, it got to be a big program, and the Navy, let me be frank, most of the rest of the admirals were, at the most, lukewarm, because in a service like the Navy, which has so many different facets to it — you've got a submarine Navy, an air Navy, a surface Navy, an amphibious Navy, and a whole bunch of sub-Navies within those. The culture is, they all have to defend and work in their own area, and anybody in some other area, that's their problem, and none of my concern. And so the high energy laser was not serving the air people or the undersea people, and therefore the number of votes you have in the OPNav of money allocation scheme was rather small, so you had to make up for that lack of constituency by vigorous dynamic progress and programs, and persuasive arguments about the utility and effectiveness that you expect from the thing, and I think we got to a point in about '75, when enough people had changed and the CNO had changed and the Secretary had changed and the DDRE had changed, that $50 million plus a year in a big program like that, for which the actual real IOC was still five or six years away at the earliest, even if we had been successful with the Coastal Crusader, which I think we could have been, you still then have to turn that into an operational system, and that's another five years. I think that the pressure of the money and everything were such that it became difficult to maintain the enthusiasm and support within the Navy, and that began to wane, and therefore it was easy for Cooper and the guys to take advantage of the fact that it had topped, and in a down stroke it got cut off. It's just, I think, I'm not sure, what might have kept it going. Probably nothing.
Seidel:Is that why you left?
Wilson:No, I had to retire. There's a statutory retirement time of 30 years of commissioned service. The law says you cannot stay in the Navy after that. So that time was coming and we knew it, so we were looking around for relief for me and started the process early, and Rear Admiral Ekas was the Naval Materiel Command, that was the Rand D guy, Chief of Naval Development, and the other admirals in NAVSEA where I was were also concerned about it, and I worked out who I thought was the best relief, and that was Roger Massey, Captain Massey, an aviator, a PhD and a sharp guy, and so we had fingered him to come early to learn the business and take that over. Naval Sea Systems Command decided that, we can't have an aviator in there, so they found Al Skolnick down in the Surface Effects Ships program out at Carder Rock and identified him about a year before, and then, in late '75, they had it out and decided for Skolnick as the relief, but I was going out. There was no question but that I was leaving, because I had to retire after 30 years, so they picked Al and Al was it, so Al came in. Once he was there, so be it, the next guy. That's the way you do it in the Navy, you just hand it to the next guy. So then
Al simply took over.
Seidel:I have heard it said that one of his frustrations was that he was under the impression he was running a 6-3 program and it really wasn't, it was a 6-2 program still.
Seidel:And that he tried to run it like a 6-3 program and it didn't work.
Wilson:That's right. You have to understand that it wasn't really a 6-3 program.
Seidel:So that was in a sense the legacy of the original setup.
Wilson:Yes, Then you know, once the watch had changed, for a lot of reasons, it became suddenly easier to shoot at it, and so it died rather quickly after that.
Seidel:I would say to contrast at least the speeches that were given at the High Energy Laser Tech Conferences, it's clear that Skolnick did not come on weakly in this business, he came on strong, seemed to be pushing it, but I think that the problem that we referred to — the one that he could not quite overcome, having come out of a long traditional line of work — one of the things about high energy lasers in all the services, it never quite found its niche in the hierarchy of projects; was never quite 6-3, it was always 6-2B or something.
Wilson:Yes. So it fell off after that, and I think the project office, however, went on. At least in terms of the overall quality of the group, it was good. I think they did accomplish a lot with the NPT and they did get the MIRACL Laser built and running and so I think they at least did accomplish that.
Seidel:In terms of the present, those are significant accomplishments.
Seidel:I wonder, you left then about the same time Sooy did?
Seidel:Or he left a little bit before you did?
Wilson:A little bit before, yes.
Seidel:Was his reason for leaving, a feeling that the program might be threatened?
Oh, I don't think so, because he was the head of the Optical Sciences Division, see, and the laser was just one activity that John MacCallum was running under Sooy, and I don't think the fortunes of the high energy laser really dictated what Walt did. There were a lot of other reasons why Walt did what he did. I never have thought that the fortunes of the high energy laser program had anything to do with Walt's move.
Seidel:Not to put down NRL too much, I gather the main reason was he just couldn't change the place as much as he'd have liked to.
Wilson:Right, can't change that place.
Seidel:Even an old hand like Lou Drummeter is helpful but not perhaps committed to the same goals.
Seidel:Well, OK, I think we did pretty well. We ran a little over time.