In recent days, social networks have been abuzz about a video shared thousands of times showing rockets fired from Gaza intercepted by a mysterious laser beam. The scene looked as though it was taken from a Star Wars movie. The rumor spread that the Iron Beam air defense system capable of intercepting rockets, mortar bombs and drones had secretly become operational after years of trials, and was already active intercepting rockets from Gaza. The news was swiftly denied by the Ministry of Defense. The video turned out to be a standard interception by Iron Dome, whose flashes created an optical illusion as if it were a laser beam.
If it were operational today, Iron Beam could have neutralized some of Hamas's attack drones, and intercepted some of the short-range rockets targeting the Gaza border area. The Ministry of Defense says Iron Beam is not meant to be operational before 2025.
What threats can Iron Beam hit?
Iron Beam is being developed and manufactured by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Lockheed Martin, and the Israel Ministry of Defense - Directorate of Defense Research & Development (IMOD DDR&D). Iron Beam is designed to intercept rockets over enemy territory, using a laser beam up to a range of 10 kilometers, as a complementary system to Iron Dome.
Iron Beam is designed to hit short-range projectiles such as mortar bombs and rockets, but in practice it may be more effective in intercepting drones and UAVs. The reason for this is the light shell of drones, which is usually made of plastic or light materials that are sensitive to heat. Rockets and mortar bombs have a hard, thick metal casing that requires the laser beam to engage short-range missiles for several seconds.
Major General (ret.) Yitzhak Ben-Israel, former head of MAFAT, who was involved in developing the Nautilus laser project back in the 1990s, believes that in the future it will be possible to equip ships, planes and armored vehicles with the system, to protect them from anti-tank missiles, mortar bombs, and artillery shells.
How long does it take for the beam to hit rockets fired from Gaza?
The laser beam works very differently from Iron Dome. While it takes many seconds for Iron Dome to launch the interceptor missile towards a rocket, the laser beam reaches the target at the speed of light. However, while the Iron Dome missile explodes and destroys the target within a millisecond, the laser beam takes several seconds to destroy short-range missiles.
Dr. Uzi Rubin, former head of the Israel Missile Defense organization and currently a researcher at Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies explains that Iron Beam is ineffective against long-range ballistic missiles. He says that these missiles have a thermal protection envelope, which allows them to penetrate additional layers of the atmosphere. "The laser beam will take several minutes to penetrate the thermal insulation envelope since its firing range is only 10 kilometers. It's not realistic," Therefore, Rubin says, the system may be more effective in responding to drones and UAVs that are made of more vulnerable materials, and can be destroyed within a range of a few kilometers.
Can the laser solve the light aircraft problem?
Military Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA) research fellow Tal Inbar claims that the system also has disadvantages, but that some of them can be solved by equipping it with more powerful laser cannons. But Inbar warns, "Here the consideration of cost comes into the picture, and it is not certain that it is worthwhile."
Rubin estimates that more effective solutions will be found against drones than a laser beam: "They can be neutralized using a beam based on microwaves that can sabotage their internal mechanisms."
What is the cost of intercepting a rocket using the laser?
Ben-Israel says that the cost of interception using the laser beam is infinitely cheaper than Iron Dome. He estimates the cost of intercepting one rocket at $1,000, which compares with $50,000 for a Tamir interceptor missile launched by Iron Dome.
However, other aspects must also be taken into account, such as the cost of the entire system. It is estimated that the US Navy is purchasing domestic laser cannons for tens of millions of dollars per launcher for its ships. Since their operating ranges are fairly short, many laser cannons are needed to cover large areas, so in terms of cost, the advantage is still on the side of Iron Dome.
Rubin adds that the electricity bill should also be added to overall cost, because Iron Beam requires huge amounts of energy to focus the beam on a tiny point. "You have to generate electricity at tremendous speed to produce a beam with a power of 100 kilowatts, taking into account that about half of what you generate is lost along the way. For this purpose, the system must also be equipped with cooling facilities that add costs and weight. Therefore, the vision that many derive from Star Wars movies, in which laser cannons shoot rapidly at many targets, currently remains only in movies or brochures, but is not yet a reality on the battlefield."
Can the laser operate in all weather conditions?
Iron Beam cannot operate in cloudy weather. The clouds make it difficult for it to operate and do not allow it to hit targets quickly and consistently. Haze and mist also greatly interfere with the proper operation of the interception system.
With all these disadvantages of the system, where will it be effective?
The navy is the natural place for initial trials of the laser interception system. The navy can provide electricity for firing and has a need for such systems, unlike aircraft or ground units for which carrying a laser cannon is more challenging. The US Navy, for example, has already equipped itself with laser cannons capable of firing powerfully at aircraft and bombs.
Last May, Rafael unveiled a marine version of its laser interception system, designed to be connected with the naval Iron Dome system, which provides protection along Israel's coast against intrusion of aircraft, rockets and mortar bombs. Inbar also stresses that the laser can be a complementary system to Iron Dome, David's Sling, and the other kinetic defense systems, but that it will never replace them.
Why has development of the system been delayed?
Ben-Israel explains that the main technological challenge has been to develop a laser beam with a power of 100 kilowatts that can act quickly to destroy the target. He says, "Instead of one beam, it was decided to split the action between several powerful laser beams. But then it took a long time to find a solution that would synchronize the pulses of the laser beams, so that they work together with precise timing to heat the target rapidly." But Ben- Israel adds that this technological obstacle in the development of the system was overcome two years ago.
Why is the laser system still not operational today?
Ben-Israel claims that political instability and the short-term governments that have served in Israel since 2019, resulted in the state not anchoring a special and sufficient budget for the project, and its development was postponed. "When there is no new state budget and when other issues occupy the government, it is difficult to invest in new projects, and existing budgets must be used for more tasks," he says.
When will the system be put into operational use by the IDF?
Iron Beam is not operational yet, but Rafael deployed its prototype in the southern region as part of a pilot in order to test its activity in a live fire situation. If there are no problems along the way, the IDF intends to put the system into operational service on the Gaza border in 2025 and on the Lebanese border in 2027.
Rafael did not respond to Globes' questions, but last August, Rafael chairman and former minister Yuval Steinitz claimed in an interview with IDF Radio that "A year from now - Israel will be the first country in the world to have partial laser protection, in two years maybe full. This will protect us both in the south and in the north."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 19, 2023.
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