Iron Dome: Is a laser-based system a better economic alternative?

The Iron Dome is effective, but expensive. As a result, the Israeli defence sector is pursuing a cheaper laser-based alternative

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Arie Egozi

Why a laser-based rocket interceptor may be the future

Israel once considered a laser-based defence system for its rocket interceptor requirements. They pushed aside the idea in favour of the Iron Dome rocket interceptor, but; a laser-based system is now being reconsidered as an operational laser may preform the same mission with lower costs and a similar success rate.  

In recent months, Israel aerospace industries (IAI) and Rafael have been working hard to speed up the development of a laser system that can shoot down rockets and mortar shells. Such a system will not replace the Iron Dome soon, but it provides a glimpse into the future of missile and rocket defence technology.

Iron Dome missile defence system. Source: Shutterstock 

According to IAI, a prototype of a laser cannon for intercepting mortar shells and similar short-range threats is in a very advanced stage of development, and they have already carried successful experiments out.

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Defence companies in Israel and the United States have been working to develop a laser-based defence system, which they consider being a game changer.

Rafael has presented the first models of a laser-based system called an "iron beam" designed to respond to shells fired from a range of up to 5 miles from the Israeli border. This fills a current capability gap within in the Iron Dome system, as it has difficulty intercepting projectiles at short ranges because of the shorter flight time.

"The Iron Dome system has difficulties in intercepting projectiles at short ranges"

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.

Advantages over a missile-based system

Obvious advantages over a missile-based defence system include a near-limitless supply of ammunition and substantially reduced costs as firing a laser beam for an interception will cost around $2000. Meanwhile, the price of launching an Iron Dome interception missile is between $40,000 and $80,000.

Cost is becoming an increasingly urgent issue as large-scale attacks become more frequent. In May, Hamas launched 460 rockets into Israel, some in concentrated salvos of 30- 40 rockets. The cost of defending against such attacks quickly skyrockets.

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Israeli discontinued its laser projects in 2007 to focus on the Iron Dome. While criticism of the Iron Dome is limited to a few senior Israeli figures, it is a pillar of current defence operations, and it has cemented its position since the 2014 Gaza attack, where the Iron Dome showed its worth through a 90 percent success rate.

However, after recent developments, such as the heightened Gaza threat and the 140.000 rockets accumulated by the Hezbollah in Lebanon, a laser-based system is once again being perused as an additional rocket interceptor solution.

What is the Iron Dome’s success threshold?

Israel has deployed the Iron Dome and the Davids Sling systems on both borders to protect against rockets. But sources say that in case of massive rocket attacks, its defensive capability to a critical point.

Iron Dome in Action

According to some estimates, to intercept full capacity rocket attacks, the IDF will have to fire over 30,000 interceptors from the Iron Dome system, and the astronomical price of this strategy could reach billions of dollars. A strategy combining both systems could eradicate all low-level rocket threats, allow citizens in South Israel to go about their day unimpeded, and eliminate the need for costly full-scale offensive operations against Gaza.

A short history of laser-based interceptor systems

A senior 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 are therefore ready to re-start the development, with the more advanced building blocks available today”.

"It was a mistake to stop the development of a laser-based rocket interceptor"

In 1996, Israel and the U.S. cooperated for the development of the Nautilus, a laser “cannon” that could eliminate rockets.

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The Nautilus was a Tactical High-Energy Laser, or THEL. In a test performed in 2000, the system shot down 28 Katyusha artillery rockets and five artillery shells. Despite its relative successes, they discontinued the program in 2005.

More recently, another sign of the renewed effort to develop laser systems to kill different aerial threats, is the Rafael “Drone Dome” system.

According to the Israeli company "Drone Dome" has 360° circular coverage and can detect, tracking, and neutralising drones using a low-intensity laser beam.

A spokesperson for Rafael, said that the company is developing defence systems based on lasers "The Drone Dome is an example".

There are many indications that laser as a rocket killer is high on the Israeli agenda again, and while opposition that was very strong in the past exists, it is much weaker.

Plans are underway to test fire an electrical laser in Israel in 2019, with U.S.officials following the process and results.

Uzi Rubin, also a former IMDO (Israel missile Defence Organization) director, and an active opponent of the laser system, says that despite the low price of the laser, the "cannon" that produces it, is very expensive and its price ranges from Tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the strength of the beam 

"The beam is spreading and losing its strength in the relatively short time"

As a result, Rubin says, it can protect a smaller area, and the cost of protection per square kilometre is high.

"In addition, the laser has difficulty penetrating clouds, and therefore suffers from weather restrictions."

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Rubin says that to intercept a rocket, the laser beam has to "cook" it for two or three seconds until the warhead explodes.

"As long as this does not happen, the laser beam cannot be diverted to another rocket, and this rate in very low when the enemy launches big salvos as we witnessed in recent fighting".

Benefits of a laser-based system

The most prominent supporters of a laser-based system are the “Home-front Shield”. This pressure group was created in order to lobby Israel’s decision-makers by creating public awareness about the advantages of using multiple technologies to counter current and future ballistic threats to Israel.

Zvi Shor one of the organisation's heads, says that the members try to convince the decision makers within the Ministry of Defence and other government officials, of the effectiveness of High Energy Laser Systems, such as Nautilus/Sky guard, in eliminating all such threats targeted at Israel.

He said that the Laser should become the main anti rocket and missile weapon "this is the only way to deal with salvos. Today, to achieve a positive intercept the Israeli airforce launches two Iron Dome interceptors against each threat. Each has a price tag of 100.000 U.S $. This is crazy. Every shot of a laser systems will cost only 2000 U.S. $ "

He added that the Northrop Grumman Sky Guard system is ready for production and they can deliver the first one in 18 months. "This system is designed to work with a chemical laser that has the energy to kill an incoming rocket or missile. This requires a 1 Megawatt laser while the electric lasers produce 100 KWAT at the most"

"In order to achieve a positive intercept the Israeli airforce launches two Iron Dome interceptors against each threat"

He rejected the claim of the opposition about clouds that will limit the laser efficiency "especially in Southern Israel, the clouds are not a factor. We are sure that eight Sky Guard systems can protect the Israeli populated area near the Gaza strip from where the rockets are launched".

Opposition to a laser-based system remains high. However, with the huge numbers of rockets around that Israel that pose a threat, increased support for testing a laser system for operational scenarios will gather steam.