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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan October 31, 2010

Lasers in the sky? The military is trying it.

An ad from Joe Manchin, the Democratic candidate for Senate in West Virginia, uses a Star Wars theme to target his opponent as "Darth Raese." (Watch it before George Lucas' lawyers hear about it.)

The Web ad shows video of John Raese, the Republican candidate, making these statements:

"We need 1,000 laser systems put in the sky, and we need it right now."

"I'm in the business of not providing jobs, I'm in the business of making money."

"I don't agree with minimum wage."

"We don't need the Department of Education."

Manchin then uses a hunting rifle to shoot down a TIE fighter. (Not kidding!)

The ad concludes, "No more crazy John Raese ideas."

Raese does oppose the minimum wage, on the grounds that the free market should set wages; he recently defended that view in a candidates' debate. He also thinks the U.S. Department of Education should be abolished, because states and counties should run schools. His comment on business was a strong defense of the profit motive in running a business.

But we were perplexed by his comment, "We need 1,000 laser systems put in the sky, and we need it right now." Manchin's ad provides it without context, as if Raese is calling for construction of the Death Star. So we decided to check into it.

We tracked the comments back to an NBC News report about comments Raese made at a voters' forum sponsored in part by the tea party movement.

Here's a fuller version of what he said (watch the video):

"I want to put in a strategic defense initiative in this country that will take care of us and our friends ... Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Star Wars: We need to bring it back," Raese said, referring to a defense program proposed by President Ronald Reagan.

He said the U.S. should not negotiate with countries like Iran. He also made fun of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's name while the audience laughed.

"What you do with them is you put them on notice that we have a defense system in our country that is the best, the best. Right now, any nuclear weapon launched from North Korea can hit Alaska and can almost hit California," he said.

"We are sitting with the only technology in the world that works, and it's laser technology. We need 1,000 laser systems put in the sky, and we need it right now. That is (of) paramount importance," he said.

The Raese campaign confirmed the extended remarks and pointed us to two opinion pieces by The Heritage Foundation that advocate missile defense, which means developing ways to intercept and destroy in-flight missiles launched by hostile forces. That would primarily be done by anti-ballistic missiles, but there's also been considerable research into Reagan's proposal to use some type of lasers. The pieces note correctly that Reagan was a strong supporter of missile defense. In recent years, President George W. Bush supported a long-range missile defense shield in Poland. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, scrapped the Bush administration plan in favor of a system designed to down short- and medium-range missiles from sites closer to Iran.

So the "1,000 laser systems put in the sky" is a reference to a longer-term plan for missile defense that presumably would use lasers instead of missiles (hence, the "Star Wars" theme.)

If you think using lasers for missile defense is fanciful, we should point out that the military is actively studying the use of lasers to knock missiles out of the sky. The technology remains controversial, though, because some military officials believe it hasn't really worked and is too expensive. In a test on Oct. 23, 2010, a jumbo jet outfitted with a laser gun failed to knock a test missile out of the sky as part of the Airborne Laser Test Bed program.

In May 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress that he wanted to continue funding prototype testing as part of basic research, but that it was not realistic to use anti-missile lasers any time soon. Gates said a basic program near Iran, for example, would require 10 to 20 jets costing $1.5 billion each, plus hundreds of millions in operating expenses. "And there's nobody in uniform that I know who believes that this is a workable concept," he added.

Getting back to the Manchin video, Raese may have been speaking a little hyperbolically about putting "1,000 lasers systems in the sky." Clearly, the Manchin campaign could have used a more straightforward quote to indicate what Raese was talking about, but they cherry-picked a quote that sounded the most nutty. You can support or oppose a missile defense shield, but this ad gives a distorted view of Raese's position. In fact, we couldn't even figure it out at first. We're not sure what West Virginia voters will make of it. Still, Raese clearly supports beefing up efforts at laser-based missile defense. So we rate Manchin's statement Half True.

Our Sources

Joe Manchin campaign, campaign ad, Oct. 27, 2010

NBC News, Raese, missile defense, and 'lasers in the sky,' Oct. 13, 2010

The Associated Press, Senate candidates debate in Morgantown, Oct. 19, 2010

Charleston Daily Mail, Senate hopefuls divided on education, Oct. 15, 2010

The Heritage Foundation, Reagan Missile Defense Speech Matters More than Ever, March 23, 2010

The Heritage Foundation, The Need for Missile Defense: Now More Than Ever, April 6, 2009

PolitiFact, Did Obama flip on whether he would continue to pursue a missile shield in Poland?, Sept. 2, 2009

U.S. Department of Defense Missile Defense Agency, Airborne Laser Test Bed Successful in Lethal Intercept Experiment, Feb. 11, 2010

U.S. Department of Defense Missile Defense Agency, Airborne Laser Test Bed Exercise Conducted, Oct. 21, 2010

Congressional testimony of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, May 21, 2009, accessed via Nexis

Los Angeles Times, Test fails for airborne laser designed to shoot down missiles, Oct. 23, 2010

USA Today, 'Star Wars' meets reality? Military testing laser weapons, May 14, 2010

The Washington Post, Missile Defense's Shelving Reflected Military's Concerns, Sept. 21, 2009

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Lasers in the sky? The military is trying it.

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