Army says air-mounted laser downs drones in tests

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

Israel’s Defense Ministry says a plane-mounted laser that it is developing successfully shot down several drones, in some cases from more than a kilometer away, over the Mediterranean Sea as part of the initial test of the system last week.

According to the head of the ministry’s research and development team, Brig. Gen. (res.) Yaniv Rotem, a fully functional prototype of the plane-mounted, solid-state laser is at least three to four years away, though a ground-based version of the system, capable of shooting down rockets and mortar shells in addition to small drones and larger unmanned aerial vehicles, is expected to not only be operational but to be in use by the Israel Defense Forces by the end of 2024.

“We will perform an operational test by the end of this year. And if it works — not if, when it works — within three years, we would have a laser in the Gaza area,” Rotem tells reporters.

According to the Defense Ministry, the benefit of such a laser, both in the air and on the ground, is that the cost per interception is negligible compared to that of the Iron Dome air defense system’s interceptor missiles, each of which costs tens of thousands of dollars. So long as there is a constant source of energy for the laser, there is also 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, when there is heavy cloud cover and other inclement weather. The plane-mounted model of the laser is meant to get around this limitation somewhat by putting the system above the clouds.

“We successfully intercepted several UAVs in the air, within a range of more than one kilometer (0.6 miles). This is a groundbreaking technological achievement and it is critical for further development of our airborne high-power laser system,” Rotem says.

This picture from March 22, 2019, shows balloons carrying a make-shift drone-shaped object flying over the border with Israel east of Gaza City, after it was launched by Palestinians during clashes along the security fence. (Said Khatib/AFP)

“This is the first time in the State of Israel that we have succeeded in doing this. And to the best of my memory, we are one of the few in the world to do so, if anyone else has even done it,” he boasts.

Rotem stresses, however, that while the trial was successful and represents a “significant and critical milestone,” it was only an initial test of the system, with years more of work before the plane-mounted laser would be fully operational.

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