JERUSALEM—Israel has unveiled a laser defense system that it says will be able to shoot down rockets and artillery shells with a high-energy beam.
The system, known as Iron Beam, was shown yesterday for the first time at the annual Singapore Air Show. The Israeli defense company that developed Iron Beam, Rafael, said it would become operational next year.
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If so, it will be the first operational laser weapon in the world. Iron Beam is designed to deal with short-range threats such as rockets, mortar and artillery shells, and drones coming from Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Its maximal interception range is 4.5 miles, too short a distance for other systems to be effective. It would vital to the security of towns and kibbutz settlements along the border that lie within that range. American funding was involved in development of the system.
So difficult has the technology proven to harness that many in the military and defense industries wrote off lasers as impractical. However, both countries have continued working on weaponizing lasers and have apparently made significant advances.
One problem for Israel has been to miniaturize the system and make it easily transportable. Rafael said that Iron Beam can be mounted on a single truck operating with another truck carrying the radar equipment. According to one report, the beam would "superheat" the warhead of incoming shells, detonating them in flight.
The U.S. Navy has announced that a laser system will be installed this year on a transport vessel, USS Ponce, for extended testing. Iron Beam, a land-based system, has already been tested successfully, according to Rafael.
A spokesman for the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command, Chris Johnson, said that if the Navy moves forward on the project "the first operational weapons could enter the fleet between 2017 and 2021."
Rafael also developed the Iron Dome system for intercepting rockets up to 50 miles at present, but this range may be lengthened. The system, which became operational three years ago, has proven highly effective in blocking rockets fired by Hamas and other Palestinian militants from Gaza but it could not intercept short-range rockets fired at kibbutzim on the border. That would be the task of Iron Beam.
Another advantage of Iron Beam is that each laser blast costs only several hundred dollars while the Iron Dome anti-rocket rockets cost tens of thousands of dollars each.
Israel is also developing an interceptor known as David’s Sling for medium-range rockets beyond Iron Dome's reach and the Arrow System against ballistic missiles such as those in Iran’s possession.