In ‘game changer,’ Israeli laser-based air defense shoots down drones

Officials hail Iron Beam system after successful interceptions of guided and unguided projectiles; Gantz says all efforts being made for early deployment

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

The Defense Ministry revealed Thursday that a laser air defense system it is developing successfully shot down drones, rockets, mortars, and anti-tank missiles in a first series of tests last month.

According to the head of the ministry’s research and development team, Brig. Gen. (res.) Yaniv Rotem, the tests were conducted at “challenging” ranges and timings.

“The use of a laser is a ‘game changer’ and the technology is simple to operate and proves to be economically viable,” he said.

In a video released by the ministry, the laser-based system can be seen intercepting a rocket, a mortar, and a drone at an undisclosed location in southern Israel’s Negev desert, during March of this year.

The ministry has been testing the laser-based defense system for several years, shooting down a drone with it last year. The recent tests were the first to be successful against the other threats, including unguided projectiles and anti-tank guided missiles. (The latter was not shown in footage released by the ministry.)

Its research and development department initially planned to deploy the anti-missile system by 2024, but the military has pushed for an earlier deployment. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced in February that Israel would deploy the system within the year.

The ‘Iron Beam’ laser-based air defense system is seen during a test in southern Israel, March 2022. (Defense Ministry)

This was apparently driven by concerns that in a future conflict, the military would not have sufficient interceptor missiles for the Iron Dome and other air defense systems to shoot down incoming rockets, missiles, and drones.

“Every effort is being made to make the system operational as soon as possible and enable an efficient, inexpensive, and innovative protection umbrella,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Wednesday.

The ground-based laser system — dubbed Iron Beam — which is being developed with the Rafael weapons manufacturer, is not meant to replace the Iron Dome or Israel’s other air defense systems, but to supplement and complement them, shooting down smaller projectiles and leaving larger ones for the more robust missile-based batteries.

According to the ministry, Israel is among the first countries in the world to succeed in using powerful laser technology to develop a working air defense system and to demonstrate interceptions in operational scenarios.

Hundreds of millions of shekels have been allocated to the final development stages and trial phase, in which the system will be placed on the border with the Gaza Strip.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (second from left) is shown a new laser-based air-defense system at a Rafael weapons manufacturer complex in Israel, on March 17, 2022. (Defense Ministry)

Since development began, the high-power laser has proven more powerful than the ministry’s team initially aimed for, officials previously said, without detailing the exact number of kilowatts of electricity it operates on.

According to the Defense Ministry, as long as there is a constant source of energy for the laser, there is no risk of ever running out of ammunition.

The downside of a laser system is that it does not function well in times of low visibility, including heavy cloud cover or other inclement weather. For that reason, the ministry intends to also mount the system on an airplane, which would help get around this limitation by putting the system above the clouds, though that is still a few more years off, ministry officials have said.

“The successful series of tests proved the uniqueness of the system, intercepting a wide range of threats in a variety of scenarios,” said Rafael Advanced Defense Systems director-general Yoav Har-Even.

“The cooperation between Rafael and the Defense Ministry [research team] has led to a technological breakthrough and the completion of a significant milestone, one that will allow us to reach initial operational capability in a short time,” he added.

A target is intercepted by the ‘Iron Beam’ laser-based air defense system, over southern Israel, March 2022. (Defense Ministry)

The ministry said the system is an “effective, accurate, easy-to-operate tool that is significantly cheaper than any other existing means of protection,” against the threats Israel faces.

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 thousands of rockets and mortar shells, even after firing upwards of 4,000 projectiles at Israel during last year’s 11-day war.

Israeli military officials have also said they have seen a growing trend in Iranian use of drone attacks in recent years, dubbing it Iran’s “UAV terror.”

Against these and other 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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