Defense Ministry announces ‘breakthrough’ in anti-missile laser development
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Defense Ministry announces ‘breakthrough’ in anti-missile laser development

New laser system to be tested over coming year, is meant to complement the Iron Dome air defense system to shoot down incoming rockets, drones

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

  • A computer-generated mockup of a proposed laser-based air defense system being developed by Israel's Defense Ministry, on January 8, 2020. (Defense Ministry)
    A computer-generated mockup of a proposed laser-based air defense system being developed by Israel's Defense Ministry, on January 8, 2020. (Defense Ministry)
  • A computer-generated mockup of a proposed laser-based air defense system being developed by Israel's Defense Ministry, on January 8, 2020. (Defense Ministry)
    A computer-generated mockup of a proposed laser-based air defense system being developed by Israel's Defense Ministry, on January 8, 2020. (Defense Ministry)
  • A computer-generated mockup of a proposed laser-based air defense system being developed by Israel's Defense Ministry, on January 8, 2020. (Defense Ministry)
    A computer-generated mockup of a proposed laser-based air defense system being developed by Israel's Defense Ministry, on January 8, 2020. (Defense Ministry)
  • A computer-generated mockup of a proposed laser-based air defense system being developed by Israel's Defense Ministry, on January 8, 2020. (Defense Ministry)
    A computer-generated mockup of a proposed laser-based air defense system being developed by Israel's Defense Ministry, on January 8, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Israel’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday announced that it was developing a laser beam capable of shooting down incoming rockets and small drones, which it plans to test throughout the coming year.

According to the ministry, the development of this laser system was possible due to a recent unspecified “technological breakthrough,” following years of investment in research efforts by defense contractors and academic scientists.

The futuristic defense system is only in the early development stages and won’t be operational in the near future, the ministry said.

Israel has for decades been working to develop a laser-based system to intercept incoming projectiles, but has failed to produce a viable option, due to cost issues and technological limitations.

The Defense Ministry’s proposed laser beam is meant to complement — not replace — the Iron Dome missile defense system.

According to the ministry, each system would have a high up-front price tag — in the hundreds of millions of dollars — but minimal cost for each use, meaning it would eventually become cost-effective.

The head of the Defense Ministry’s Weapons Development and Technology Infrastructure Administration (MAFAT), Brig. Gen. Yaniv Rotem, said each firing of the laser would cost approximately one dollar — not including the cost of the system — compared to the tens of thousands of dollars that each Iron Dome interceptor missile costs.

So long as it were connected to electricity, the system would never run out of ammunition — a potential problem for the Iron Dome, which can only carry a finite number of interceptor missiles.

The downside of a laser system is that it does not function well in times of low visibility, when there is heavy cloud cover and other inclement weather, the ministry said.

“We can only shoot down with a laser what we can see,” Rotem said.

According to the ministry, in the coming year, MAFAT, working with the Elbit and Rafael defense contractors, will create three versions of the laser system: a static ground-based system that can be placed along Israel’s borders to protect nearby communities; one that can be loaded onto a mobile platform in order to defend troops in the field; and one that can be attached to aircraft in order to both work around the visibility issue by placing the system above the clouds and to dramatically extend the system’s range.

“We are entering a new age of energy warfare in the air, land and sea. The research and development investments made by the [Defense Ministry] in recent years have placed the State of Israel among the leading countries in the field of high-energy laser systems,” Rotem said.

Hezbollah fighters stand atop a car mounted with a mock rocket, as they parade during a rally to mark the seventh day of Ashoura, in the southern village of Seksakiyeh, Lebanon, In this October 9, 2016 photo. (Mohammed Zaatari/AP)

According to the ministry, no other countries are currently involved in the development of this laser system.

In December 2018, the Israeli financial newspaper Globes reported that former defense minister Avigdor Liberman ordered the Defense Ministry to begin investing heavily in laser technology in both funding and attention in order to speed up the production of a viable prototype.

On Wednesday night, current Defense Minister Naftali Bennett lauded the ministry’s achievement.

“The Israeli brain continues to lead with breakthrough innovation. The laser project will make the defense establishment deadlier, more powerful and more advanced,” he said.

“In addition to our existing war tools, we will add a laser sword against the threats, in the north and in the south,” Bennett said in a statement.

An Israeli missile is launched from the Iron Dome defense missile system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on November 12, 2019, to intercept rocket launched from the nearby Palestinian Gaza Strip. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The Lebanese Hezbollah terror group is believed to maintain an arsenal of some 130,000 rockets, missiles and mortar shells, which the military believes would be used against Israel in a future war. The two largest terror groups in the Gaza Strip, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, are also each believed to possess tens of thousands of various projectiles.

Against these threats, Israel operates a multi-tiered air defense array, made up of the short-range Iron Dome, the medium range David’s Sling and the long-range Arrow and Patriot systems.

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