Until recently, the military application of relatively high-energy lasers has been more science fiction than reality. That is starting to change.
Israel’s Ministry of Defense announced Jan. 8 a “breakthrough” in its development of laser technology to intercept aerial threats. This technological milestone promises to strengthen Israel’s lower-tier missile defense and provides another opportunity for U.S.-Israel research and development cooperation.
In 2006, the same Israeli committee that recommended the development of Iron Dome for short-range missile defense also recommended that Israel continue R&D to develop a solid-state laser for the same purpose.
Last week’s announcement demonstrates the prescience of that recommendation.
Israeli government scientists and industry partners have developed a solid-state laser source capable of producing a coherent beam, based on several smaller laser modules, strong enough to intercept lower-tier rockets and missiles.
The primary breakthrough relates to the laser beam’s power and accuracy. Israel’s MoD reports that it has been able to “target and stabilize the beam” from a distance.
Following the development, the MoD launched three laser programs in collaboration with Israeli industry partners. The first two programs focus on producing a ground-based laser working as a supplement to Iron Dome, and a maneuverable vehicle-mounted laser capability to protect mobile forces. The third program, which may take longer to develop, seeks to field an airborne version that could protect larger areas.
Brig. Gen. Yaniv Rotem at the Israeli Defense Ministry forecast that Israel will demonstrate the laser capabilities in the field this year. To be clear, Rotem appears to be referring to a demonstrator and not a fielded system. Regardless, this timeline may prove challenging. While the development represents a significant R&D milestone, it is important to understand the technology’s promise — as well as its limitations.
This technology has the potential to provide a more cost-effective missile defense capability. The development and production of the optics, mechanics and laser source for a single beam are admittedly expensive. The cost of a single laser shot, however, is negligible.
Consequently, once fielded, this capability could help address the cost disparity, for example, between relatively inexpensive adversary rockets and much more expensive traditional kinetic interceptors.
Additionally, this laser technology could provide Israel a virtually inexhaustible interceptor stock, for certain missions, as long as military forces maintain access to electricity.
Despite these significant advantages, contrary to some initial public reports, current technical realities present some limitations.
This laser technology, for example, will not provide interception at the speed of light. While the laser beam would indeed reach the target at the speed of light, traveling much faster to the target than a traditional kinetic interceptor, it would need to remain on the target for several seconds before destroying it. The amount of time required would depend on variables such as distance, beam power, atmospheric conditions, the nature of the target and the laser’s exact spot on the target.
Iron Dome, for example, can launch a number of interceptors simultaneously, sending each one to a different target. A single laser could focus on only one target at a time.
One could of course employ multiple beams, but the equipment required to generate multiple beams could quickly become cost-prohibitive. Consequently, this laser technology, at least for now, is ill-suited for countering adversary salvos consisting of large quantities of aerial threats.
Due to challenges related to cost, weight and maneuverability, the most effective and cost-efficient short-term employment of this new technology will likely be in conjunction with Iron Dome batteries.
If successfully fielded, this technology would increase both the capability and capacity of the Iron Dome system — enabling users to preserve finite and more expensive Iron Dome interceptors for targets and weather conditions not suitable for the laser beam.
The U.S. Department of Defense has also made progress in laser weapon technology. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps have started testing high-energy and directed lasers designed to destroy drones. The Air Force successfully tested a laser system capable of shooting down missiles, designed to eventually be used on airplanes. Current technology for lasers is limited to 50-150 kilowatts only capable of destroying drones and some incoming enemy tactical missiles.
The Israeli pairing of this laser capability with Iron Dome may be relevant to the U.S. Army, which has acquired two batteries of the missile defense system.
The next step in laser technology is increasing the output of lasers to defeat higher-end threats found in the Russian, Chinese and Iranian military arsenals. If past is prologue, this will take more time.
As technologies seemingly forever relegated to science fiction become a reality, it is important that the U.S. and Israel field these capabilities before their adversaries. Given common capability needs and the demonstrated prowess of the two defense innovation sectors, it is clear that the U.S. and Israel can do that best together.
Jacob Nagel is a former head of Israel’s National Security Council and national security adviser to the Israeli prime minister. He is a visiting senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power at FDD, where Maj. Liane Zivitski is a visiting military analyst. Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Department or any other U.S. government agency.