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Arie Egozi

Israel will continue to develop laser weapons to counter the threat of rockets despite severe budget problems caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. This is because the economic situation in Lebanon may cause attacks against Israel by Hezbollah, with Israeli sources saying the organisation controls Lebanon.

In the last 18 months, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has carried out over 300 air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria and other countries in a major effort to thwart the Iranian programme to turn the 140,000 rockets it transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon into precise weapons. The IAF has slowed down the process but Israel still faces salvos of rockets launched from Lebanon and Gaza. Israel has a four tiered defence system against rockets and missiles, but what was sufficient until recently now appears less capable of protecting the Israeli population.

More protection needed

The IRON DOME and DAVID’S SLING rocket interceptors, alongside the ARROW 2 and 3 systems are operational with IRON DOME combat proven and averaging 88 per cent successful intercepts. However, this is not enough and will be even less capable in the future so the IAF is looking for other layers, such as lasers to shoot down rockets.

In recent months, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Rafael have been working hard to accelerate the development of a laser system. According to IAI, a prototype laser cannon for intercepting mortar shells and similar short-range threats is in a very advanced stage of development and successful experiments have already been carried out.

A few years ago, Rafael presented the first model of a laser gun called an “IRON BEAM”, designed to respond to shells fired from a closer range, with which IRON DOME has difficulty coping because of the short time that passes from the moment the launch is detected until it hits. According to IAI, the main advantage of the laser is a fast reaction time and therefore such a system is good for dealing with short-range munitions such as mortars. The U.S Army and the IDF understand that this system has additional advantages over missile-based defence systems, since its arsenal of ammunition never ends and the cost of firing a laser beam is very low compared with an IRON DOME interception missile that is estimated to cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Growing threat

The issue became particularly urgent after last year when Hamas launched 460 rockets into Israel from Gaza, some in big salvos of 30- 40 rockets. In 2014, IRON DOME became a “star”, mainly because of its high kill rate. In addition, DAVID’S SLING systems are deployed in different locations in Israel. However, sources say that in case of massive rocket attacks where there is a need to launch more than one interceptor, the situation will be stretched to a critical point. According to some estimates, in order to intercept such a large number of rockets, the IDF will have to fire a huge number of more than 30,000 interceptors from the IRON DOME, after this system proved its ability to deal with large salvos of rockets.

In the past, Israel and the U.S cooperated for the development of the NAUTILUS, a laser “cannon” that could kill rockets. This was a Tactical High-Energy Laser, or THEL, that the U.S and Israel agreed to cooperate on in 1996. In 2000, the demonstrator managed to shoot down 28 Katyusha artillery rockets and five artillery shells. The prototype weapon was very big and heavy, and could not be reduced in size, mainly because of the specifications of the Laser generator, meaning the programme was discontinued in 2005.

A very senior source Israeli source, said that it was a mistake to stop the development of a laser based rocket interceptor “now there is a growing number of experts that understand the mistake that was made and ready to re start the development, with the more advanced building blocks available today”. It can be assumed that in early 2021 the first tests with an electrical laser will be conducted in Israel, with U.S officials following the process and results.