In ‘game changer’, Israeli laser-based air defense shoots down drones

The Department of Defense revealed Thursday that a laser air defense system it is developing successfully fired drones, rockets, mortars and anti-tank missiles into a first series of tests last month.

According to the head of the ministry’s research and development team, Brig. Gen. (res.) Yaniv Rotem, the tests were performed in “challenging” areas and times.

“The use of a laser is a ‘game changer’ and the technology is simple to operate and proves to be economically viable,” he said.

In a video released by the ministry, the laser-based system can be seen intercepting a rocket, a mortar and a drone at an undisclosed location in the Negev desert of southern Israel during March this year.

The ministry has been testing the laser-based defense system for several years and shot down a drone last year. The most recent tests were the first to be successful against the other threats, including unmanned projectiles and anti-tank-guided missiles. (The latter was not shown in footage released by the ministry.)

Its research and development department originally planned to deploy the anti-missile system in 2024, but the military has pushed for an earlier deployment. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced in February that Israel would implement the system within the year.

The laser-based air defense system ‘Iron Beam’ is seen during a test in southern Israel, March 2022. (Ministry of Defense)

This was apparently driven by concerns that in a future conflict, the military would not have sufficient interceptor missiles for the Iron Dome and other air defense systems to shoot down incoming rockets, missiles and drones.

“Every effort is being made to make the system operational as quickly as possible and to enable an efficient, inexpensive and innovative umbrella of protection,” Defense Secretary Benny Gantz said Wednesday.

The ground-based laser system – called Iron Beam – which is being developed together with the Rafael weapons manufacturer, is not intended to replace the Iron Dome or Israel’s other air defense systems, but to supplement and supplement them, shoot smaller projectiles down and leave larger ones for the more robust missile-based batteries.

According to the ministry, Israel is among the first countries in the world to have succeeded in using powerful laser technology to develop a functioning air defense system and to demonstrate interceptions in operational scenarios.

Hundreds of millions of shekels have been allocated to the final development and pilot phases, where the system will be located on the border with the Gaza Strip.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (second from left) will be shown a new laser-based air defense system at a Rafael weapons manufacturing complex in Israel on March 17, 2022. (Ministry of Defense)

Since the development began, the high-power laser has proven more powerful than the ministry’s team originally intended, officials said earlier, without specifying the exact number of kilowatts of electricity it operates on.

As long as there is a constant source of energy for the laser, there is no risk of ever running out of ammunition, according to the Department of Defense.

The disadvantage of a laser system is that it does not work well in times of low visibility, including heavy cloud cover or other bad weather. For that reason, the ministry also intends to mount the system on an aircraft, which would help circumvent this restriction by putting the system above the clouds, even though it is still a few years yet, ministry officials have said.

“The successful series of tests proved the unique nature of the system and intercepted a wide range of threats in a variety of scenarios,” said Rafael Advanced Defense Systems CEO Yoav Har-Even.

“The collaboration between Rafael and the Ministry of Defense [research team] has led to a technological breakthrough and the completion of a significant milestone, one that will enable us to reach the first operational capacity in a short time, ”he added.

A target is intercepted by the laser-based air defense system ‘Iron Beam’ over southern Israel, March 2022. (Ministry of Defense)

The ministry said the system was an “effective, accurate, easy-to-use tool that is significantly cheaper than any other existing method of protection,” against the threats facing Israel.

The Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist group is believed to have an arsenal of about 130,000 rockets, missiles and mortar shells that the military believes will be used against Israel in a future war.

The two largest terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic jihad, are also each believed to possess thousands of rockets and mortar shells, even after firing up to 4,000 projectiles at Israel during last year’s 11-day war.

Israeli military officials have also said they have seen a growing trend in Iranian use of drone strikes in recent years, calling it Iran’s UAV terror.

Against these and other threats, Israel operates a multi-level air defense array consisting of the short-range Iron Dome, the medium-range David’s Sling and the long-range Arrow and Patriot systems.

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