Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Photo courtesy of: Lignet
Israeli scientists have developed Iron Beam, a high-tech laser cannon that could, like Iron Dome, knock Palestinian rockets out of the air but also destroy low-tech mortars.
Laser anti-missile systems have long been talked about but may actually be deployed in Israel’s next war. The recent Gaza war with Hamas terrorists exposed a weakness in Israel’s otherwise highly accurate Iron Dome missile defense system that proved deadly for Israeli soldiers. It took out a high percentage of incoming rockets but was less effective against mortars, a low-tech weapon that has been around for more than 500 years.
The new laser beams never run out of firepower as long as electricity is available. They also cost much less than the interceptor missiles fired by the Iron Dome batteries.
Israel’s Iron Beam laser missile defense system is designed to destroy incoming mortars, artillery shells and smaller rockets. Iron Beam will also shoot down swarms of enemy drones. The laser cannon will someday “superheat” the short-range projectiles shot from Hamas or Islamic Jihad militants in the Gaza Strip or shells and rockets fired from Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems designed the solid-state laser to be electronically powered. Rafael called the initial testing successful and hopes to field-test the weapon next year with the goal of making it fully operational by 2017.
“The Iron Beam weapons system enables the delivery of scalable levels of energy at tactical and strategic distances while generating an entirely new effect in the battlefield,” a Rafael executive told Aviation Week.
Iron Beam will engage targets fewer than 4.5 miles away, a capability that makes it a valuable companion to Israel’s existing Iron Dome missile defender batteries, which are less effective at very short range. Mortars and rocket swarms also fly at smaller trajectories that are a challenge for the Iron Dome. Moreover, the Iron Dome Tamir interceptors cost between $40,000 and $100,000 each, as opposed to the Iron Beam that run less than $100 a burst.
Mortar fire from Gaza caused some of the worst casualties during the current conflict with Hamas. Nine soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were killed by mortar rounds that landed in the Eshkol region on the Israeli side of its border with the Gaza Strip.
Iron Dome has been successful against longer-range rockets fired by Hamas. As of August 5, Hamas has fired more than 3,300 rockets at Israeli towns and villages. Iron Dome knocked down nearly 600 of those rockets that threatened civilian targets and let the rest fall in unpopulated areas.
The Iron Beam lasers will complete the lowest layer of Israel’s Multi-Layered Missile Defense system. This protective umbrella consists of ‘David’s Sling,’ designed to intercept medium-range missiles with a rocket called ‘The Stunner’ that has a range of 25-185 miles. The Arrow-2 and 3 systems are intended to counter threats from longer-range missiles, especially from Iran.
David’s Sling will comprise the second tier above the Iron Dome to protect against enemy missiles such as the Grad, Scud, Fajr and Fateh-100, while the Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 will defend against longer-range Shahabs and Sejils used by Iran. Each layer is designed to overlap with the other to form a flexible and nimble shield to defend against a possible saturation strike from many different types of enemy missiles and aircraft.
The Iron Beam system, if it delivers on its promises, should be highly effective during future wars with anti-Israel militants. When fully developed, it will be cheaper and more efficient than Iron Dome. The Iron Beam, with its counter-mortar capability, could become the Israeli infantry soldier’s best friend on the battlefield.
There are a few downsides when solid-state lasers are used to knock down fast-moving projectiles that come in swarms. The laser’s tracking system is blind in rainy or foggy weather, although this is less of a drawback in the arid climate of the Middle East. Lasers are also not effective against targets that are over-the-horizon.
However, Iron Beam system would not have necessarily avoided the need for the ground assault during this summer’s Operation Protective Edge. The network of tunnels that Hamas built became a huge priority after Israeli soldiers and engineers were sent into Gaza. But even without the tunnels, the IDF would have still needed to send ground troops over the border to eliminate rocket launchers, mortar tubes, ammunition dumps and command-and-control nodes.
A fully operational Iron Beam battery offers a psychological boost and gives peace of mind to Israeli citizens and soldiers, who are located north of the border with Gaza. The lasers can also provide the finishing touches to Israel’s multi-layered missile defense shield.
Even with this protective umbrella, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists have proved resilient over the years. The extremists are particularly adept at countering, adjusting to and learning lessons from the best Israeli defense technologies. They excel in asymmetrical warfare and that means there is potential for them to learn to defeat and foil the future Iron Beam lasers.
Defense contractors in the United States and policymakers in Congress have partnered with Israel to develop the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow systems. The U.S. military would seem to be a good fit for the Iron Beam laser cannons, but American success with laser missile-defense systems has been less than stellar.
The Strategic Defense Initiative of the Cold War was never fully deployed. Other air- and ground-based lasers in the United States that were tested in subsequent decades never survived budget cuts. But the U.S. military could reconsider, if Israel’s Iron Beam is a battlefield success.
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Video courtesy of: TomoNews US