JERUSALEM — Israel plans to create a “laser wall” that would see the country shift from investing large sums in interceptor missiles to using electric-based lasers that are less costly.
The system will be operational by next year, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said earlier this month in announcing the plan. “This will allow us, in the medium to long term, to surround Israel with a laser wall that will defend us from missiles, rockets, UAVs and other threats. That will essentially take away the strongest card our enemies have against us,” he added.
Israel has been working on laser air defense technology for decades, going back to the Tactical High Energy Laser system (also known as Nautilus), developed in the 1990s and early 2000s, although that project was canceled. But in January 2020, the Defense Ministry announced a breakthrough.
“We are entering a new age of energy warfare in the air, land and sea,” said Brig. Gen. Yaniv Rotem, then-chief of the ministry’s Directorate of Defense Research and Development. “The research and development investments made in the last years have placed the state of Israel among the leading countries in the field of high-energy laser systems.”
Israel has also reportedly turned to the U.S. for cooperation on laser defense. In April 2021, the head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization said a ground-based laser would be incorporated into Iron Dome. Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which makes the Iron Dome air defense system, has also demonstrated the use of lasers against small drones as part of its Drone Dome system. Israel’s two laser systems are under development by two of its largest defense companies: Rafael works on the ground-based system, and Elbit Systems leads work on the airborne system.
But questions remain as to their effectiveness and eventual deployment: Where will Israel station the weapons? Will they be able to defend the country against rockets fired from the Gaza Strip by Hamas, and threats from the north by the likes of Hezbollah or Iran? And there are budgetary considerations that go along with acquiring them. In addition, while the ground-based system will initially be on the Iron Dome battery, the platform for the airborne system remains to be seen.
Is a ‘laser wall’ viable?
“Supporters of laser solutions maintain that it is feasible and Israel can be fully defended with lasers; that there is no need for missile interceptors except on a rainy day and this will cost much less than defense using interceptors,” said Uzi Rubin, the founder and first director of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization.
Rubin, who is now a senior researcher at The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told Defense News that while the cost of defeating an incoming threat with a laser may be low, the price of acquiring and maintaining the technology could be significant.
Lasers are also impacted by weather conditions, so any airborne laser system would benefit from being 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,” Rubin said.
A further challenge is the low rate of kill for this technology, as lasers heat up a target in order to destroy it.
“[With the] Nautilus laser, it took between 2-3 seconds to kill a Grad-like rocket,” said Rubin, referring to a type of rocket often used by militants in Gaza and Lebanon. “So consider that they [the enemy] fire at a rate of two to four rockets per second; so you kill one, and several more have been launched already.”
The May 2021 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza illustrated this problem. Hamas increased its rocket fire rate from previous wars, firing up to 125 rockets in salvos over several minutes. “With Iron Dome, you fire your rockets and you fire two per second — and each Iron Dome is already locked on target, it is working in parallel. So they fire 20, and [we can] target 20, while a laser has to target each one individually,” he noted.
Rubin said these challenges call into question the feasibility of a laser wall. “The last point is range. Laser beams have finite range. After a while it disperses and is not concentrated. These days a laser beam disperses by 8-10 kilometers [5-6 miles], so it’s a local defense. That means you need a lot of them. You have to defend a lot of area and put more than one; it won’t kill the salvo,” he asserted.
At Rafael, Pini Yungman, the head of the company’s air defense unit, noted the laser technology would not be a stand-alone system.
“We are developing the laser to be a launcher in the Iron Dome system. It means one or two of the launchers of each one of the batteries will be a launcher that comes with lasers,” he told Defense News.
He did acknowledge the challenges lasers face when confronted with fog, poor weather conditions, or “any kind of interference in between the launcher and the target.”
“You cannot rely on it by itself; you need a combination of kinetic kill and energy [lasers], a combination of ways to intercept, otherwise you won’t be able to intercept threats,” he explained.
However, the executive pointed out that the cost of using a laser might be 10% that of using a missile interceptor. This “means by operating in combination in good weather, using laser and interceptors in Iron Dome, you can reduce the overall cost,” he said.
Furthermore, lasers can operate faster than missiles, meaning deploying the systems near a hostile border can result in a shorter interception time because there’s no longer the need to wait for launch and watch the missile fly toward its target.
This combination with Iron Dome is not yet operational, but Yungman said the development and integration effort is underway at Rafael, and that in the next few months “we will have [a] final integration test.”
Currently, Rafael is partnered with American firm Raytheon Technologies to produce the non-laser version of Iron Dome. Israel has already supplied two batteries of the system to the U.S. military, and one was deployed to Guam.
But unlike the missile interceptors Raytheon makes, where a large quantity is produced to meet demand, a laser system requires making fewer devices, and Israel is locally developing the system.
He said power is not an issue for integrating lasers, as the missile battery will have the options of using its own generator or connecting to a electrical grid. “I believe in 10 years or 15 years, we will have high-power energy lasers that will be able to be carried by UAVs or airplanes,” he added, referring to intercepting larger threats such as theater ballistic missiles and possibly hypersonic weapons.
The current plan is to develop and operate the laser with Iron Dome, but Yungman said the company could also incorporate the technology on other air defense systems it makes.
Likewise, he added, the United States might seek the laser upgrade to its Iron Domes. “It only depends on the U.S. Army request. If they request, then no one in Israel will say no, especially not me.”
In June, Israel’s Directorate of Defense Research and Development said the Defense Ministry, Elbit Systems and the Air Force successfully intercepted several drones using an airborne high-power laser weapon system. The system was mounted on a Cessna aircraft, and a photo showed it burning a hole in a midsized drone over the sea.
The test was the first phase of a multiyear program to develop an airborne laser. Israel said at the time that “the ability to intercept and destroy airborne threats is groundbreaking and offers a strategic change in the air defense capabilities of the State of Israel.” The government also said the airborne system will complement the country’s multitier missile defense, which includes the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow missile interceptor systems.
Elbit already makes the J-MUSIC direct infrared countermeasures system, which uses a plane-based laser to deflect missile threats. And the airborne laser system that is currently under development will be used on aircraft above the clouds, which should solve some weather-related challenges. Deploying it in the air also provides the chance for the interceptor to follow up with attacking the missile launcher.
Israel’s Defense Ministry would not provide a comment for this story, and based on discussions with several people in the private sector, this topic appears particularly sensitive.
Tal Inbar, a senior research fellow at the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, agrees that air defense systems can’t rely solely on lasers because of the weather factor as well as the thickness of rockets. The thicker the material, the longer it would take for a laser to destroy the threat.
“The answer, regardless of other issues, is to have much more laser systems — so even the economic excuse for such a system is collapsing. But if it’s a complementary defense system, then there are advantages if weather permits for short-range projectiles like mortars [to be intercepted],” Inbar told Defense News. “So [the] laser is good, but it will [have to] be another part of a whole missile defense system.”
Rubin, the founder of the Missile Defense Organization, agreed.
“Lasers will work. It’s not a question of whether it works — it will be able to kill rockets. My doubts are about the cost effectiveness.”
Seth J. Frantzman is the Israel correspondent for Defense News. He has covered conflict in the Mideast since 2010 for different publications. He has experience covering the international coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and he is a co-founder and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.