The will to use lasers stems, in part, from economic needs. In a situation of prolonged fighting, as was the case during Operation Protective Edge, the IDF has to deal with hundreds or thousands of mortar bombs fired at IDF troops, and the use of interceptors such as the Iron Dome system or similar solutions can lead the country to bankruptcy, or force the IDF into a very tight or even impossible logistic conduct.
On the other hand, a laser-based solution can provide effective protection at a reasonable cost that would allow the ground forces to maneuver subject to a minimum degree of risk.
One of the companies that started developing such a system is Rafael. The system was designated "Iron Beam" and is expected to become operational in the coming years. According to some estimates, the timeframe in question is at least five years before the system actually becomes operational.
Another company that developed a prototype system for the US Army is Boeing. Their system was designated "High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator". According to Boeing, this 10 kilowatt laser system can intercept mortar bombs and blind UAVs within a range of 2 km.
"It is only a prototype at the moment, but we can present an operational system within two years," says Peggy Morse, VP of Boeing's Directed Energy & Strategic Systems (which includes missiles and defense systems). "The advantage of this system is the cost/interception ratio compared to the use of interceptors. It can produce 150-200 shots between two cooling cycles, and thousands of shots in a 24-hour timeframe.
"According to various estimates, in order to provide protection against mortar fire along the entire perimeter of the Gaza Strip, 50 such systems will have to be employed to provide protection against mortar fire and UAVs. We can manufacture this amount of systems within a period of five years, according to the characteristics and specifications that are suitable for Israel."
Is your system competing against Rafael's Iron Beam?
"Competition produces better systems," explains Morse. "We held discussions with Rafael regarding possible cooperation, but during the talks we realized that both companies were developing similar systems, so cooperation is not in the cards at the moment. At the same time, we can think about integrating our system with the Iron Dome system. The existing infrastructure of the Iron Dome, like the Radar or the mission computer, may be used to feed and manage both systems. In this way you can have both a laser and an interceptor and the system can decide which measure to employ against the threat. However, such integration requires joint development with Rafael."
Will Laser Replace Interceptors?
To answer this question, we need to examine the current limitations of the laser. The main limitation is the electrical power output. If we review the world of air defense, the extreme point on the interception speed scale is Rafael's Trophy system, designed specifically to deal with antitank missiles. In such a profile, the interception process takes half a second, including identification, spotting and firing. At present, with lasers of up to 30 kilowatt output, the process takes at least 2 seconds. In other words, any profile that is shorter than that will be irrelevant for the laser. To shorten the interception process, we must go up to output rates of 100 kilowatts or more.
The reason for it has to do with the time it takes the laser to heat up the point it homes onto until the warhead or threat is affected. A laser system works in such a way that it identifies the threat and its trajectory, homes onto an "Archimedean Point" on the actual threat (a point the heating of which will neutralize the threat), and then fires the laser for the period of time required in order to heat up that point. The higher the laser output, the shorter the heating cycle.
Another limitation of the laser involves the weather conditions. The laser beam does not work with the same degree of effectiveness under all weather conditions, so there are situations where it cannot be relied upon. Another problem is the safety range. An interceptor has an established effectiveness range and friendly vehicles know how to stay clear and operate at a safe distance from the system. On the other hand, the safety range of the laser beam is infinite, and it can endanger friendly vehicle in its vicinity.
"The solution is a combination of technologies as part of the air-defense layout," says Morse. "It depends on the reference threat. The laser is still a new technology relative to the interceptors, and as such, questions are being raised about it, some of which are still open. We also need to license the system for export, but it is expected that world demand for these systems will be high. At the same time as the contacts with Rafael, we initiated contacts with other industries in Israel regarding the future manufacture of parts for the system. It is clear for us that if we want to market the system to Israel, the Israeli defense industries should be involved in the process."
IMOD responded to the claims made in the article and stated that "The Boeing Company of the USA does not have an operational laser system that may be deployed to provide defense against mortar fire, but only a technology demonstrator. At the present time, no operational laser interception system is available anywhere in the world (including the USA). If the Company had a mature operational system ready for immediate deployment, the acquisition of such systems by the IDF could be considered in principle opposite other technological/operational solutions. IMOD is well aware of the laser capabilities being developed around the world and invests in the development of technologies and a systemic capability in the field of a high-power laser weapon for a diversified range of applications by the Israeli defense industry."