Israel developing new laser missile defense system

Israel-Lebanese border Photo: Reuters

As the missile threat grows in the north, the Ministry of Defense is speeding up development of the system, which a source says is on the verge of being ready.

While the threat of precise rockets and missiles from Lebanon increases and large IDF engineering forces are leading the Northern Shield operation to expose attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah into Israeli territory, the Ministry of Defense is accelerating and budgeting a plan to develop a new interception system using powerful lasers. The program, including procurement of future interception systems, is projected as several billion shekels.

Sources inform "Globes" that upon becoming Minister of Defense two and a half years ago, Avigdor Liberman ordered Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure head Brig. Gen. (res.) Danny Gold to proceed with staff work for assessment of new laser interception technologies. Liberman resigned as Minister of Defense three weeks ago, but the project continues.

Gold, who was awarded the Peres Israel Defense Prize for his important role in developing Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.'s Iron Dome interception system, leads a joint steering team of the Ministry of Defense and the defense industries working to develop a laser interception system.

A senior defense source told "Globes," "Exciting developments have already been attained. Many good minds have already been working on this for two and a half years. We have achieved a breakthrough and made substantial progress, You could say that the system is on the verge of being ready."

The Ministry of Defense says that during Liberman's term as Minister of Defense, he personally kept track of progress in laser development programs and conducted prolonged consultations on the matter with former Israel air force commander Maj. Gen. (res.) David Ivry, now VP Boeing International and president of Boeing Israel; former IAI chairperson, former MK, and former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Yair Shamir; and Maj. Gen. (res.) Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, currently chairperson of the Israel Space Agency.

Defense sources told "Globes" that Liberman had made major budget allocations for the laser program that would be sufficient to reach the final development stage and produce a prototype of the system. They declined to state how much was allocated. One source said, "If they continue giving preference to the current program and work on it at a fast pace, there may be operational laser rocket interception capability in three years, or even a little less."

The Ministry of Defense does not disclose details about progress in the development program, which is being conducted in secret in cooperation with some of the defense industries. Defense industry sources said that clear progress had been made in recent years on problems previously regarded as major stumbling blocks in laser development, such as the ability to focus lasers rapidly and accurately on the threatening object.

Among the principal obstacles that previously prevented making such systems operational were the need for enormous energy sources in order to operate them, concern about environmental pollution by poisonous gases, mobility difficulties, deploying them according to operational needs, and lack of effectiveness in varying weather conditions.

"A more feasible war economy"

"Iron Dome wouldn't have existed, either, had we not wanted it," a senior defense source told "Globes," referring to Israel's future laser weapon program. "Such a system can be operational - if they decide on it and realize that it is critical, given the situation," he added.

Since entering operational use in the spring of 2011, Iron Dome has intercepted over 2,000 rockets launched against Israel, the vast majority of them from the Gaza Strip. The cost of each Iron Dome interception is estimated at $80,000. In the most recent conflict in the Gaza Strip, it successfully intercepted 80% of the rockets aimed at densely populated areas or sensitive installations, despite the fact that the campaign included the heaviest rockets barrage ever within a short period - 500 rockets in less than 24 hours.

A senior defense source told "Globes" that even Iron Dome would not be enough in the future. "The coming rounds of fighting in the Gaza Strip, not to mention a state of war in the north, will feature far heavier barrages against the home front. We need something that is also effective in interception costs and will make the war economy more feasible. There is no comparison between the cost of interception with a missile and the cost of interception with a laser, which should be almost negligible." It is believed that Hezbollah is capable of bombarding Israel with 1,500 rockets and missiles a day, some of them precise.

Defense industries warming up their engines

The defense industries are keeping a low media profile on the laser programs in which they are involved. The three major companies - Rafael, Elbit Systems Ltd. (Nasdaq: ESLT; TASE: ESLT)- IMI Systems Ltd. (IMI), and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) (TASE: ARSP.B1) - which are leading classified development programs in this area, are disclosing no details about the their rate of progress in these ventures.

At the same time, industries sources say that there has been clear preference in recent years for laser development programs, especially at Rafael and Elbit Systems-IMI, also reflected in the construction of special facilities in some of them.

Rafael has been focusing on laser for some years now, including a program for development of mortar interception capability. The system being developed, Iron Beam, is being led by the company's land warfare division. The system's concept was first revealed in a 2014 defense exhibition in Singapore. At the same time, Rafael has other laser programs, one of which has already demonstrated good capabilities in intercepting drones.

The Ministry of Defense has wanted to develop laser systems for the IDF to use in intercepting high-trajectory weapons for a long time, and has been keeping close track of developments in this sphere.

15 years ago, even before the decision to procure Iron Dome, the Ministry of Defense considered the Nautilus laser system developed by US company Northrup Grumman. Nautilus is based on a chemical laser that emits poisonous gases into the environment when it is used. Its production requires large energy sources, and the dimensions of the system itself are exceptionally large. These problems mean that it cannot be made mobile.

Northrup Grumman later offered Israel a smaller mobile system, based on Nautilus, called Skyguard. The Ministry of Defense was unimpressed and turned down the offer, preferring to go ahead with the Iron Dome development program. The Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure explained at the time that with the completion of the development of capabilities for interception with a solid-state laser, which is more effective than a chemical laser, systems of this type would be integrated as an element supplementing Iron Dome.

The Northrup Grumman salespersons trying to persuade the Ministry of Defense to select their system did not give up, however; they claimed that the system had successfully withstood a series of trials in the US. Senior figures in the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure dismissed this, saying, "Every such trial took place after dozens of postponements, or it was necessary to recalibrate the system. The US itself decided against getting this interception system."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 5, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Israel-Lebanese border Photo: Reuters
Israel-Lebanese border Photo: Reuters
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