Lockheed Martin joins Iron Beam project to build variant of system for US market

American defense contractor signs agreement with Rafael to help develop, test, manufacture laser-based air defense system, which has been hailed as a ‘game-changer’

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

Frank St. John, chief operating officer, Lockheed Martin with Yoav Har-Even, Rafael CEO and president, next to an Iron Beam defense system, in Israel, December 5, 2022. (Lockheed Martin)
Frank St. John, chief operating officer, Lockheed Martin with Yoav Har-Even, Rafael CEO and president, next to an Iron Beam defense system, in Israel, December 5, 2022. (Lockheed Martin)

US defense contractor Lockheed Martin on Monday signed an agreement with the Israeli Rafael weapons manufacturer to join the development of a high-powered laser interception system, dubbed Iron Beam.

In a statement, Lockheed Martin said the cooperation would be geared toward developing, testing, and manufacturing a variant of the Iron Beam system for the American market as well as others.

The Iron Beam is designed to work in tandem with systems like Iron Dome and shoot down smaller projectiles.

Israel has hoped to partner with Washington on the Iron Beam project, including American investment in further development and deployment of the system. In July, US President Joe Biden toured a Defense Ministry display of Israel’s multi-tier air defense systems, including the Iron Beam.

Rafael CEO Yoav Har-Even on Monday hailed the “strategic agreement,” saying it would “expand and diversify the capabilities” the company has to offer to its customers.

“This serves as a clear example of Israeli-made capabilities leading to strategic cooperation which will greatly benefit both sides,” he added.

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

“This unique capability will enhance Israel’s vital air and missile defense system with state-of-the-art laser technology, and we are honored by the opportunity to expand Lockheed Martin’s role as a security teammate for the State of Israel,” said Lockheed Martin’s COO, Frank St. John.

Lockheed Martin’s operations in Israel have mostly been limited to supplying and helping maintain aircraft used by the Israeli Air Force, from the C-130 transport planes to the F-16 and F-35 fighter jets.

“Lockheed Martin is entering a new area of operations in Israel. Now, we step into the high-energy laser era and look forward to fielding operational, reliable, and highly-effective systems with teammates such as Rafael,” said Joshua Shani, chief of Lockheed Martin Israel.

The Iron Beam, which is being developed by Israel’s Defense Ministry with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, 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.

The ministry has been testing the laser-based defense system for several years, shooting down drones, unguided rockets and anti-tank guided missiles in a series of tests in March.

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. It is not clear when the initial deployment will happen.

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

The ministry’s research and development department initially planned to deploy the anti-missile system by 2024, but the military has pushed for an earlier deployment.

According to the Defense Ministry, as long as there is a constant source of energy for the laser, there is no risk of it ever running out of ammunition. Officials have hailed it as a potential “game-changer” in the battle against projectile attacks.

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

Fragments of a drone and mortar shot down by the Iron Beam laser air defense system, shown to US President Joe Biden, at the Ben Gurion Airport, July 13, 2022, (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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.

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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