JERUSALEM — An Israeli defense company expects its new laser weapon will be operational in two to three years and incorporated into the Iron Dome air defense system.
Rafael Advanced Defense Systems sees it high-energy Iron Beam system as the beginning of a new era in the use of lasers to counter missile, drone and mortar threats. The Israeli government's Directorate of Defense Research and Development allocated funds for the technology earlier this year following Rafael's announcement of a technological breakthrough in its Iron Beam effort.
At the time, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the country was moving toward a dramatic change in warfare and security. Israel's previous prime minister, Naftali Bennett, also expressed enthusiasm about the system. Elections in Israel next month will likely see the formation of a new government.
In April, the laser system was successfully tested and shown to U.S. President Joe Biden during a visit to Israel. The director general of the Defense Ministry, retired Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, presented the remains of a UAV and a mortar that the system intercepted by at the time.
Michael Lurie, who currently runs the firm's land maneuver systems directorate and is the incoming CEO of Rafael's U.S. branch, said work on the laser system stemmed from the "huge cost" of intercepting aerial threats to Israel.
Faced with threats primarily from rockets and missiles, Rafael had developed David's Sling and Iron Dome, part of a multilayered integrated air defense system. But "there was a huge cost with each interception, and the Ministry of Defense asked us to look at a new system — a complementary system that is part of Iron Dome that uses a laser energy interceptor," Lurie told Defense News.
Reducing the cost per interception is important, Lurie said. "Do you launch a million-dollar rocket against a drone? You need something else, and we see a lot of countries looking into this."
The U.S. Navy, for example, tested a laser system on a ship in December, and then executed another laser test in April at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
Like other companies, Rafael has been working on laser technology for several years, but recent breakthroughs are making deployment more realistic. For instance, the power of Rafael's laser has increased to about 100 kilowatts, as opposed to its previous level of 10-20 kilowatts.
Lurie explained that for a laser to be effective, its system must be able to detect a threat and track it. "It's like putting a beam on a target the size of a dime at about 10 kilometers. This dime is flying through the air and it is moving sideways, and you have to keep your beam on it; this is a challenge."
Having proved Iron Beam works, he said, "the Israeli military would like it immediately; a two- to three-year effort [to deploy it operationally] is more reasonable — that's what it is going to take to get a system up and working."
He predicts that once the system is operational, Israel will quickly deploy it. "We won't have to wait a lot. Once it works, then it will see operations in weeks or months, and we can adjust and adapt and change things — and get it even better."
Lurie noted that one issue with laser technology is that, even if they can be made more powerful and their systems made small enough for practical purposes, distance and weather can still impact their utility, not to mention it takes time to burn a target. Rafael would not, however, specify the distance at which the current system operates. Reports have estimated its range at 7 kilometers (4 miles).
Still, the Iron Beam's laser can reach a threat faster than a rocket interceptor, meaning the laser could potentially engage targets before they cross Israel's border, Lurie said. While the system relies on the same multimission radar that Iron Dome uses, "once the target is detected, the target is handed over to the laser system, which tracks it," he added.
The Defense Ministry has backed Iron Beam's development with a budget that will get it up to an initial operational capability. Rafael would not say how much money the government provided.
A model of Iron beam will be on display at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference, which runs Oct. 10-12.
"For the U.S. military, this is not new; they know where we are at, they know the effort, [but] they don't know all the specifics," Lurie said.
The U.S. Army has acquired two batteries of the Iron Dome system, which do not include the laser weapon. The U.S. Marine Corps tested a system that incorporates Iron Dome's Tamir interceptor in July. American company Raytheon Technologies is Rafael's partner for the Iron Dome.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.