Israel plans to field a practical air defence laser by 2025, a shipping container sized unit called Iron Beam able to shoot down rockets, drones and mortar bombs at a range of up to 10 kilometres.
Iron Beam will form part of an air defence system such as Iron Dome, giving commanders greater flexibility to use the most appropriate weapon for a particular threat.
Israeli defence company Rafael said one big advantage of directed energy weapons is they are cheap to operate. Each shot costs a few dollars worth of electricity, as against the cost of a missile, potentially targeting a low cost drone.
Rafael business development manager for directed energy weapons Eli Drori said Iron Beam includes no radar or command and control mechanism – it is wholly an effector intended to be integrated into a larger system.
He said Rafael demonstrated the capability to the Israeli Ministry of Defense in 2020-21. It was sufficiently impressed to contract for development of an operational system.
“In 2025 we are supposed to field the first system in Israel. This is probably going to be the first operational high energy laser weapon system in the world,” he said at the Avalon Airshow in Australia.
Iron beam delivers more than 100 kilowatts of energy to a coin-sized spot, taking a few seconds to inflict catastrophic damage. Each system comprises two shipping container-sized units, one with two lasers, the other supplying power and cooling.
In an interception, the command unit detects a targets then decides which is the most appropriate effector.
Many nations including the US have sought to develop viable high energy laser systems.
To field a viable system, Israel needed to overcome a number of challenges, both technical and conceptual.
Drori said two key changes in recent years allowed fullscale development of the laser system to proceed. One was the maturity of technology, especially adaptive optics which ensure the laser beam remains concentrated on the target despite atmospheric distortion.
“There was a change of concept. We reached an agreement with the customer for achievable objectives,” he said. That meant, he said, not aspiring to a laser able to shoot down fast jets at long range.
“We are aiming for an affordable system. Our development is focused on the very unique technologies that must be done.”
Drori said for some targets, greater power is needed. Rather than developing the higher power lasers, just use more lasers from separate systems.
“We find that it is much better, in terms of development and production costs, to have three systems that will bring you 300-plus kilowatts, rather than one enormous system,” he said.