Written by Kevin Jennings
When the Strategic Defense Initiative was announced by President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983, it was mocked and derisively nicknamed the “Star Wars program”. The concept of using lasers to shoot down missiles seemed like something straight out of science fiction, and at the time it was. But times change and technology advances. Directed-energy weapons have been in development for years, but they have remained in the research and development stage. It has been unclear when, if ever, they would be deployed as practical, efficient, and cost effective weapons.
In August of 2019, Turkey claimed to use a combat laser to shoot down a drone in Libya. If true it would be the first time an energy weapon was used in actual war conditions, but the claim remains unconfirmed. However, on April 14, 2022, Israel announced the world’s first energy-based weapon system that it intends to deploy within the year.
The Iron Dome
Israel’s current anti-missile defense system is named The Iron Dome. It was originally deployed on March 27, 2011, and on April 7 that year it successfully intercepted a missile from Gaza for the first time. The first, but by no means the last. In official statements from the Israeli military they claimed in November 2012 to have intercepted over 400 missiles with the Iron Dome. Two years later, that number was over 1,200.
The Iron Dome is a typical air defense system. It uses missiles to shoot down incoming rockets and artillery shells. The system is effective at ranges as short as 4 km and as long as 70 km. The automated Iron Dome operates day or night under any weather conditions, and it can respond to multiple threats simultaneously. The autonomous guidance and control system is extremely effective, and is credited with shooting down 90% of missiles launched from Gaza that would have landed in populated areas of Israel, though it does particularly struggle when detecting incoming missiles at ranges closer than 4 km.
It’s a similar system to what many countries use for air defense, and while effective, it is extremely expensive. The Iron Dome currently has ten missile batteries deployed with plans to deploy five more. The cost of each battery is $50 million, and that’s just the cost of deployment. The missiles housed in the battery don’t come cheap, and interceptions performed by the Iron Dome come at a cost of $100,000-$150,000 each. The 1,200 interceptions from the first three years alone would have cost as much as $180 million beyond the initial $500 million cost of deploying the ten batteries.
This cost presents a major problem, because it is a one sided cost. It may cost Israel’s Iron Dome $100,000 for every missile or rocket it intercepts, but those rockets they shoot down can be procured by militants for a few hundred dollars. Surely, there has to be a better way.
The Iron Beam
It all started with a slick YouTube video. Well, it all started with years of research and development, but it was unveiled with a slick YouTube video. On April 14, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted “Israel has successfully tested the new ‘Iron Beam’ laser interception system. This is the world’s first energy-based weapons system that uses a laser to shoot down incoming UAVs, rockets & mortars…It may sound like science fiction, but it’s real.”
Embedded in the tweet was a nearly two minute YouTube video of the laser being tested to shoot down rockets, mortars, and drones with incredible efficacy and speed. Bennett’s tweet also mentioned just how much this system was going to cost. While the cost per interception by the Iron Dome is over $100,000, the cost for the same task performed by the Iron Beam is just $3.50. It also never needs to be reloaded, and will always be ready to fire so long as there is electricity available.
It is undoubtedly not a coincidence that this announcement came near the anniversary of the 11 day Israel-Gaza war in 2021, and only a week after the 11 year anniversary of the first successful interception performed by the Iron Dome. If the video of the tests are genuine and the system performs as well as Israel claims, this marks a major step in the advancement of human warfare. After decades of research and development by nations all around the world, Israel really may deploy the world’s first energy-based weapons system.
Of course, this is a developing story, and so far there is not much information available to the public about the Iron Beam for obvious reasons. What we do know is that the solid state laser beam is likely hundreds of kilowatts in power. A previous report from March claimed that Israel was testing 100-150 kW lasers, but it is believed that the Iron Beam is stronger than those initial reports speculated.
Initially Israel was hoping to deploy the Iron Beam in 2024, but the military moved up the timeline in the hopes of shoring up their defense as the Iron Dome is in danger of running out of missiles in its batteries. The United States has already contributed $1.6 billion to Israel’s Iron Dome since 2011, and early this year Congress approved another $1 billion in aid for the program so Israel shouldn’t run out of missiles anytime soon, but even with those fears allayed they are intent on accelerating the timeline of the Iron Beam.
The war between Russia and Ukraine has highlighted a potential need for such a system. While missile based air defense systems have allowed Ukraine to prevent Russia from gaining air superiority, it can’t last forever. Ukraine is relying predominantly on Soviet era air defense systems, and those missiles are going to run out. A defense system that has effectively unlimited ammunition would be a major boon to any nation that fears it may be under attack.
For years Israel has been the target of aggression from Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hezbollah alone is believed to maintain a stockpile of 130,000 rockets, mortars, and missiles for use against Israel in a future war, and even with aid from the United States, Israel would struggle to keep the Iron Dome’s batteries stocked.
The Future of Israeli Defense
Even once the Iron Beam technology is ready for deployment, it will not mean the end of the Iron Dome. Currently, the Iron Beam lasers have an effective range of approximately 7 km, and they are able to lock on and destroy a target within five seconds. This will make them extremely useful tools for the shorter range targets that the Iron Dome has struggled with in the past, but it will merely be a supplement to the existing missile batteries. The Iron Dome’s effective range is ten times that of the Iron Beam, but when operating in tandem they may improve their rate of targets successfully intercepted from 90% to 100%.
According to Brigadier General Yaniv Rotem, Head of R&D on the Iron Beam project, “The completion of these innovative tests using a high-power laser is just the beginning of our vision. This is the first time we’ve succeeded in intercepting mortars, rockets, and UAVs from such challenging ranges and time intervals. The laser is a game-changer thanks to its easily operated system and significant economic advantages. The next step is to continue the development and initial system deployment within Israel. Our plan is to station multiple laser transmitters along Israel’s borders throughout the next decade. We will continue to simultaneously develop advanced capabilities, including the aerial laser.”
No matter how powerful, effective, or cost efficient the lasers are, however, there is one problem that they may never be able to overcome, and that is the weather. We mentioned that the Iron Dome works day or night in any weather conditions, but the same cannot be said about the Iron Beam. Inclement weather or heavy cloud cover will greatly affect the efficacy of the directed-energy weapons.
As Rotem stated, “We can only shoot down with a laser what we can see.”