Israel builds laser weapon to zap threats out of sky

The new laser weapon is intended to complement the Iron Dome defence system. PHOTO: NYTIMES

JERUSALEM (NYTIMES) - After two decades of research and experimentation, Israeli defence officials now say they have a working prototype of a high-powered laser gun that can intercept rockets, mortar shells, drones and anti-tank missiles in flight.

Officials said that the system performed successfully in a recent series of live fire tests in the southern Israeli desert, destroying a rocket, a mortar shell and a drone, and prompting a standing ovation from officials watching the action on screen.

The government has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to develop the weapon, which Prime Minister Naftali Bennett described this week as a "strategic game changer".

He has pledged "to surround Israel with a laser wall".

Professionals involved in developing the system say it is still several years away from being fully operational in the field, and experts caution that even then, it may initially be of limited use in protecting Israel from heavy incoming rocket fire. Israeli officials have not said whether it would be effective against the precision-guided missiles that Israel says Hezbollah is developing in Lebanon.

Still, laser weapons have moved from science-fiction movies and the gaming fantasy genre to reality. At least one laser weapon, Lockheed Martin's Helios, has started deployment on US Navy ships.

"There is a lot of promising laser work going on," said Dr Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "This isn't 'Star Wars' science fiction anymore."

The US Army has also been working on laser weapons, including more powerful ones able to down cruise missiles, and is moving towards deployment, Dr Karako said.

None has been battle-tested yet, however, and laser beams have serious limitations, like not being able to shoot through clouds.

Israel's ground-based laser air defence system, named Iron Beam, is intended to complement, not replace, other elements of Israel's air defence arsenal, including Iron Dome, the well-known short-range missile interception system, as well as medium- and long-range missile interception systems.

While those systems fire small guided missiles to intercept incoming projectiles, the new weapon trains laser beams on a particular spot on the projectile, heating it up to the point of destruction.

Israel's Defence Minister Benny Gantz said that Israel was "one of the first countries in the world" to develop such a weapon.

Brigadier-General Yaniv Rotem, head of the Defence Ministry's research and development team, said that during the live fire tests in March, incoming threats were intercepted within seconds of detection, not minutes, as in previous tests, and at a range of up to 10km.

"We have a full system to demonstrate the capability," he said in an interview. "We are there."

The quest for laser weapons has had a long history of failure.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan created the Strategic Defence Initiative, widely mocked as "Star Wars", to find a way to shoot down nuclear ballistic missiles, including by laser technology. After spending more than US$200 billion with little to show for it, that effort was abandoned in 1993.

But research continued under other programmes. In the late 1990s, Israel and the United States tried to produce an experimental, high-energy laser system with a less ambitious reach, aimed at destroying rockets in flight. That effort, known as Nautilus, was shelved in 2005, partly because of the system's bulkiness and poor performance.

The technology has now shifted from the chemical laser, which required corrosive and toxic chemicals to induce a beam, and machinery almost the size of an on-site laboratory, to the solid-state laser, which needs only copious amounts of electricity.

And in a recent technological breakthrough, the Israeli developers say they were able to combine many laser beams, at a very high intensity, and have them meet at a specific point on an airborne target.

Israel's Defence Ministry recently awarded a contract worth more than US$100 million (S$137.5 million) to the state-owned Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, the primary manufacturer of the laser system.

"We've been working on laser technologies for about 20 years," Mr Michael Lurie, vice-president and head of the Land Maneuver Systems Directorate at Rafael, said in an interview. "They were very cumbersome, large and not effective. We had problems with energy, tracking and the ability to pierce through the atmosphere."

But in the past couple of years, he said, "we solved the science. Right now we face engineering challenges. But we know the system works."

Israeli officials say the main advantage of the Iron Beam will be its cost, with interceptions costing little more than the power needed to operate it. Bennett said the Iron Beam interceptions cost about US$3.50 a shot, compared to tens of thousands of dollars apiece for each Iron Dome interception.

Moreover, Iron Dome is heavily subsidised by the United States, which allocated an additional US$1 billion for the weapon in the 2022 budget at a time when US military aid to Israel has become increasingly controversial. Israel is also sharing its Iron Beam knowledge with its US allies, Israeli officials said.

Brig-Gen Rotem said that Iron Beam would reverse the economic equation with Israel's enemies and that Israel would recoup its investment in as little as two weeks of conflict. The initial deployments would be around Gaza, he said, then along all of Israel's hostile borders.

"Israel never abandoned the idea of laser technology," said Professor Gabi Siboni, an expert in military strategy at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, an Israeli research centre. "It will be cheaper, safer and less dependent on rearmament."

But the developers acknowledged that the laser system must be integrated with the other kinetic interception systems because of the weather: The laser beams are ineffective in hazy and cloudy conditions.

Israel is working on an airborne, high-powered laser that could intercept threats above the clouds, but that is likely to take years to develop.

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