After its world-renowned success with the Iron Dome, its counter-rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) system with a 90% success rate defending against incoming missiles, Israel wants to up the ante by supplementing its air defense systems with a new, comprehensive, high-powered laser wall system that can be cost-effective to use when compared to the exorbitantly expensive Iron Dome.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on February 1 announced in a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv that it had been wanting to develop a “laser wall” to protect itself from both ground-launched and airborne threats within the next year. This defensive laser wall is to be used to destroy incoming missiles, rockets, drones, and other similar threats that do not cost a fortune to operate.
He wanted this system to be fully operational by 2023 to complement and possibly replace the Iron Dome, as it was too expensive to operate. However, this decision still lies in limbo as the laser system has not been fully developed as of writing.
“This will allow us, in the medium to long term, to surround Israel with a laser wall that will protect us from missiles, rockets, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and other threats, and in fact, take from the enemy the strongest card it has against us,” said the Prime Minister.
Last 2021, the Israeli Ministry of Defense, together with Elbit Systems, showed a testing video of an experimental laser system that could be mounted on a plane, specifically a Cessna Grand Caravan, as seen in the video. During the test, it had destroyed a drone with a laser beam focusing on a small section of the drone’s hull, with the laser system being operated by a group of 3. The drone quickly caught fire and subsequently crashed into the sea. According to Oren Sabag from Elbit Systems, the aim is to destroy any incoming missiles, aircraft, or threats before they come near Israeli populations, specifically those heavily populated.
“During this tests, which is the first phase in the development of our airborne high-power laser system, we have installed an advanced laser on an aircraft with advanced optics and tracking capabilities, and we have successfully intercepted a number of UAVs within a range of above 1km (0.6 miles),” said Brig. Gen. Yaniv Rotem, Head of Military Research and Development in the IMOD.
“All of the launched UAVs were intercepted and fell into the sea. For the first time ever, we have developed such capabilities in the State of Israel, and we are among the first in the world. We intend to continue the development of this system which strengthens our defense capabilities,” he continued.
An Expensive But Effective Air Defense
It can be remembered that the Iron Dome had been tremendously successful with its air defense capabilities during the past few years as it had been defending against Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia political and militant group, and Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic militant group, which fire hundreds of cheap, unguided Soviet Katyusha rockets and Qassam rockets into Israeli hoping to kill Israeli civilians.
With a range of about 44 miles, the system is really designed to defend small portions of land, and it really does its job well, according to reports. However, despite its technologically advanced system, it is also notoriously expensive to operate. If Hamas and its Qassam rockets cost about $300 to $800 to build, the Iron Dome shells about $50,000 to $100,000 per interceptor missile. So there is no doubt that while it is super reliable, it is also super expensive. The terrorist groups targeting Israel know this and launch large volleys of missiles hoping some will get through and failing in that, cause Israel to expend vast sums to defend itself. This is why the Israeli government is looking toward lasers and laser walls to help lessen costs in defending itself from the constant threat of missiles raining on their civilians. The laser wall would currently cost about 10% of the price tag of using a missile interceptor.
In the demonstrations last year, the operational laser was said to have 0.6 miles range. However, by the end of the development of the new air defense system, the Israeli government aims to have it at 12 miles of range with a 100-kilowatt laser so that it can burn through any UAV, missile, or rocket it may detect. More so, it aims to be cheaper than the drone, rocket, or missile that the Israelis are currently being bombed with. Israel could deploy hundreds of mobile ground-based systems near its borders to intercept the missiles as they are inbound, as shooting them down over cities just brings the missile down on civilians anyway. Israel would also have airborne lasers as well as lasers are limited by weather conditions.
Bennett stated that terrorists could launch rockets into Israel at a fraction of the cost against the Iron Dome, so it did not make sense why they were using such an expensive method to defend themselves, the PM explained.
“It allows [the terrorists] to launch more and more Kassams and for us to shed many millions on a ‘lightning strike’ and billions during a campaign. We decided to break the equation, and it will be broken in only a few years,” he quipped. “If you can intercept a missile or rocket with an electric pulse that costs a few dollars, we are weakening the ring of fire that Iran has built on our borders,” he continued.
Aside from making air defense systems more affordable and cost-efficient, the overall goal is to weaken Iran’s ring of fire and so-called Iran proxies and allies. With the development of these new technologies, Israel may also export said technology to its regional allies, who are facing the same threat from Iran and its proxy groups.
‘This new generation of Israeli air defense will also be able to serve our friends in the region,” said the Prime Minister referring to Iran-backed Houthi attacks in the United Arab Emirates.
Originally, the research and development team creating the weapon had planned the anti-missile system to be operational by 2024. However, the Prime Minister and the military had pushed for earlier deployment due to safety and cost concerns, one being that the Israeli air defense systems would not have enough interceptor missiles for the Iron Dome to be effective as it is a common practice by Hamas to fire large amounts of Qassam rockets and mortars to Israel in an effort to overwhelm the Iron Dome.
While many experts have maintained that Israel can depend on lasers, another portion says that maintaining the technology could have a significant price tag. According to Uzi Rubin, a senior researcher at The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, lasers can be impacted by weather conditions; therefore, if the laser system is airborne, it would benefit if it were above the clouds.
“It is feasible, but you would need to use UAVs for which you need a lightweight laser. The other option is taking manned aircraft and putting a laser in them, but then you need to maintain a significant number of aircraft in the air all the time. It’s feasible, but the cost would be high,” said Rubin in an interview with Defense News.
Questions about its effectiveness and rate of kill were also taken into account by Rubin, stating that lasers had a low rate of kill and were slow in intercepting and destroying rockets. It could easily be overwhelmed when militants from Gaza and Lebanon launch rockets multiple rockets per second as it would take a few seconds to destroy incoming hostile rockets.
Thus, the Israelis stated that the laser wall would not be a stand-alone system and that it would be working with the Iron Dome and may possibly be integrated with the batteries of the launcher where “one or two of the launchers of each one of the batteries will be a launcher that comes with lasers.”