“It may sound like science fiction, but it’s real.”
Thus tweeted Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, accompanied by a highly produced video of Israel’s new laser-based air defense system, the “Iron Beam”, destroying incoming ordinances in the Negev desert.
The successful test of the device joins a recently announced US Navy test of a similar weapons platform called Layered Laser Defense (LLD). LLD was tested at the White Sands Missile Range High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility in New Mexico as laser air defense systems begin to move from concept to action.
“Innovative laser systems like LLD have the potential to redefine the future of naval combat operations,” Rear Admiral Lorin C. Selby, chief of naval research, said in a statement.
Laser focused: The United States Office of Naval Research (ONR) has been studying laser-based weapons since the 1980s, reports Interesting Engineering, and as the technologies powering lasers have improved, the weapons have slowly walked closer to reality.
In 2014, the ONR carried out an air defense laser system test on the USS Mackerel. The amphibious transport ship’s laser weapon system, dubbed LaWS, is “more accurate than a bullet”, the MackerelCaptain Christopher Wells, told a CNN team during a demonstration in July 2017. (It’s also faster than a speed ball: the beam travels – naturally – at the speed of light. )
And it could bring that accuracy to a number of targets.
“It’s not a niche weapon system like some other weapons we have in the military where it’s only good against air contact, or it’s only good against surface targets, or it’s only good against, you know, ground targets – in which case it’s a very versatile weapon, it can be used against a variety of targets,” Wells told CNN.
In recent tests, the LLD shot down a drone acting as a subsonic cruise missile, as well as fixed-wing aircraft and quadcopters, according to Interesting Engineering.
Meanwhile, in Israel, the country’s Iron Beam air defense system intercepted and precisely shot down anti-tank missiles, mortars and rockets, reports the AP.
The LLD system is also capable of non-lethal deterrence measures such as optical “glare” and disabling as sensors. Because the systems are completely electric, they do not require potentially dangerous thrusters.
The cost of war: While the Israeli government claims the Iron Dome – which fires interceptor missiles at incoming rockets – has a 90% success rate, the country’s traditional air defense system has one obvious downside: cost.
Israeli Prime Minister Bennett has previously noted that it only costs hundreds of dollars to fire a rocket into Israel, but the Iron Dome costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per firing.
By contrast, Bennett said the Iron Beam can take out incoming weapons for around $3.50, Insider reported (though that likely doesn’t include the initial cost of building the lasers).
The future of lasers: Although the US Navy has stated that it currently has no plans to deploy the LLD in the field, Israel is looking to deploy the Iron Beam within the year.
US and Israeli forces are not alone in seeking to exploit the precision, versatility and cost-effectiveness of laser weapon systems, with the French Navy, one of the largest and most formidable in the world, having announced its intention to do the same last year.
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