The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is expected to deploy the world's first laser-based air defense system. The new system, known as "Iron Beam," was developed by Israeli defense contractor Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.
The weapon system will extend the ability of the IDF to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian Hamas militants rocket attacks by using a laser to target and "bring down like flies" short-range rockets, artillery shells, and mortar bombs with trajectories too small for Israel's famed Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries to engage and intercept effectively.
Both the Iron Dome interceptor and the new Iron Beam system are manufactured by the state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. in a project funded by the Israeli Ministry of Defense and extensively underwritten by the U.S.
According to the Daily Mail, Rafael officials said the new system was the result of five years of research and development in solid-state laser. It was enthusiastically touted by a spokesperson for Rafael, Amit Zimmer, as the real-life version of futuristic "Star Wars" technology.
"It's very accurate and will help avoid collateral damage... When you use lasers, you have an unlimited magazine."
But Israeli defense officials have consistently declined to give details about the time schedule for deployment of the new system, and how and where batteries would be deployed.
The Iron Beam air defense system will employ a "directed high energy" fiber optic laser beam to intercept rocket and missile threats with trajectories covering ranges of up to seven kilometers (4.5 miles). The laser system, cued by a mobile surveillance and tracking system, is able to destroy airborne targets within five seconds of firing.
Israel's already deployed Iron Dome system, widely credited with 80 percent success rate against relatively long range rockets fired by Palestinian militants, employs radar-guided interceptor rockets, while the Iron Beam is designed to fire a laser that is capable of disabling warheads of missiles as small as artillery shells and mortar bombs. The system is also able to intercept small unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
High energy laser weapons destroy targets by super-heating so that the target disintegrates in an instant, according to Rafael spokesperson, Zimmer.
"It's exactly like what you see in Star Wars. You see the lasers go up so quickly like a flash and the target is finished."Rafael officials said the system has undergone extensive testing, and scored 90 percent success in destroying artillery shells and mortar bombs.
Although the Iron Beam system, first formally unveiled at the 2014 Singapore Air Show, can operate as a stand-alone system, it will be operated as the fifth layer or element of an integrated air defense system consisting of the Arrow II interceptor designed to shoot down ballistic missiles at atmospheric heights, advanced Arrow III rocket interceptors capable of intercepting ballistic missiles in space, and finally, the David's Sling, designed to knock down large rockets and cruise missiles.
Rafael officials said last year that the system has undergone extensive testing, and demonstrated its ability to effectively engage artillery shells and mortar. They said the system will be modified to have multiple lasers that can be used to hit multiple targets independently.
Experts say that one of the major benefits of using directed high energy weapons, compared with radar-guided missile interceptors, such as the Iron Dome system, is that while they cost more to produce and deploy, they have lower life-cycle operational costs which offset production and deployment costs. They also have the advantage of not using expensive ammunition and lower manpower requirements.
The next few years will see dramatic developments in the weaponization of laser technology. Late last year, the U.S. Office of Naval Research unveiled a prototype of its solid-state Laser Weapons System (LaWS) deployed aboard the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf. It released footage showing the weapon's infrared system being used against test targets on sea and in the air.
However, defense experts, such as Avnis Patel of the Royal United Services Institute, and Fanar Hadad, research fellow with the Middle East Institute in Singapore, said that although introduction of laser-based weaponry into the Israel's air defense system will help to improve its effectiveness, it will not represent a drastic change in the already skewed balance of military power between Israel and its regional adversaries.
"Essentially, its military and tactical utility will be particularly useful in complementing the already proven Iron Dome system in tackling very short range threats such as rockets and mortar fire and in close quarter engagements."Hadad was particularly critical of the new system, saying that it reveals "Israeli paranoia" over the issue of national security in the Middle East.
"The development of another layer says more about Israeli paranoia. The possibility of a conventional attack against Israel is next to nil and there is hardly a need for five layers of missile defense systems."
However, such criticism overlooks the fact that the system is designed essentially to provide protection for the civilian populace during attacks, such as those launched from the Gaza Strip against civilian population centers by Palestinian Hamas militants. While the attacks have done little damage in terms of lives and property, they have inflicted considerable psychological stress on the civil populace.
The Israeli government is, of course, also anxious to assure prospective investors and Jewish immigrants of its ability to provide security. Besides, rendering rocket attacks by Palestinian militants ineffective could force them to give up such terror tactics altogether.
[Images: Rafael Advanced Systems via NextBigFuture, Daily Mail]