Last week, the UK marked the completion of a significant stage in the development of its Dragonfire laser interception system, with a successful trial in Scotland. The UK has invested some 100 million pounds in the project. It has not so far disclosed the system’s range, but says that it can be mounted on ships, an important feature against the background of the missile threat to shipping in the Red Sea from the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
One of the people involved in the project is Shimon Fhima, an orthodox Jew who has been Director of Strategic Programmes at the UK Ministry of Defense since 2020. "The DragonFire trials at the Hebrides demonstrated that our world-leading technology can track and engage high-end effects at range. In a world of evolving threats we know that our focus must be on getting capability to the warfighter and we will look to accelerate this next phase of activity," Fhima said.
The progress with the British weapon is part of growing competition in this area, with Israel also involved. The Iron Beam high-energy laser system under development at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems became the first weapon of its kind in the world when it was successfully passed trials in April 2022. It is designed to intercept rockets of various kinds with a 100 Kw laser beam. It is believed to have an effective range of ten kilometers, and is expected to become fully operational by the end of 2025.
Advantages and disadvantages
One of the main considerations behind development of laser systems in Israel, the UK and elsewhere is cost. In the first month of the Swords of Iron war, for example, some ten thousand rockets were fired towards Israel. The cost of an Iron Dome interceptor is about $30,000, while the cost of operating a laser system is a small fraction of that, so it is obvious that large expenditure could have been saved with such a system. According to figures published by the UK Ministry of Defense, the cost of an interception by Dragonfire is only about ten pounds (NIS 47), for the power used.
Laser interception does, however, have disadvantages. In the first place, the system intercepts targets only in series, and so will knock out only one rocket in a salvo, unless several systems are deployed at the same time. The second problem is that cloudy, hazy or foggy weather limit its capabilities. "Laser will probably not replace kinetic systems," Tal Inbar, a research fellow at US research institute Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, told "Globes". "It provides less protection than a missile. Although the price of firing a laser is lower than that of an interceptor missile, when you work out how much you want to protect, it’s not certain that the calculation is on the side of the laser," he said.
Dragonfire and Iron Beam are just two contenders in an increasingly intense global race that began when then US president Ronald Reagan launched the strategic defense initiative that became known as the Star Wars program in the 1980s. The US is now investing $669 million in research in this area with the aim of reaching a megawatt laser by 2026.
Last November, the US Navy signed an agreement with US company BlueHalo for the development of a laser interception system for installation on US Marine Corps vehicles.
China is also active in this field. According to a US intelligence report in 2022, China already possesses certain laser capabilities, and apparently aspires to be able to shoot down satellites in space with lasers. At this stage, it is doubtful whether this is possible, because of the large distances. Scientists at the Station of Extreme Light Shanghai have said they are close to developing a 100-petawatt laser interceptor. 100 petawatts is ten times the output of the largest nuclear power plant in the world, and much doubt has been cast on this claim.
Another player is Russia. In 2018, President Vladimir Putin unveiled a laser system for air defense and anti-satellite warfare called Peresvet. India also has ambitions in this field. According to an official announcement, the Indian army deployed a laser defense system on January 1, 2021, during a speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. "There aren’t all that many players in this area, because China won’t sell to anybody, and no-one will sell to China," says Inbar, "but there’s the US, Europe, China, and India, where the situation isn’t entirely clear."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 23, 2024.
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.