IDF Examining Alternative Technologies to U.S.-made Laser Gun

Along with what appear to be signs that Israel will have to procure Northrop Grumman Corporation's Sky Guard laser gun system - whose technological and operational capabilities are not well regarded by many in the defense establishment - other initiatives are being considered to counter the missile threats against Israel. For the most part these efforts involve the development of different types of anti-missile missile systems. These projects are in the feasibility-study stage at present, and are meant to offer an answer to short- and medium-range missile and rocket threats.

The Arrow missile and its accompanying systems are already deployed operationally and are prepared to intercept long-term missiles - Syrian Scuds with ranges of 300-500 kilometers and the Iranian Shehab with a 1,300-2,000 kilometer range. Even though the system is meant to be able to intercept missiles with all types of warheads, the main idea behind the Arrow was to provide a counter to missiles with nonconventional warheads.

The logic behind the development of a short- and medium-range anti-missile missile system stems from the fact that it is based on tested and existing technology, unlike the laser gun system. The costs of development are also estimated to be a quarter of the funds necessary to finish the as-yet uncompleted R&D for the laser gun ($400 million have already been invested and an additional $200 million are needed). The main shortcoming lies in the high cost of each missile - several hundred thousands of dollars compared to one "shot" of the laser gun, whose cost is estimated to be $3,000. Another problem is the time necessary for developing, testing and deploying such a system, compared to the laser gun, whose American makers say could be ready for deployment in 18 months.

The supporters of the laser gun do not like the missile initiatives. They say that that the laser gun can counter all types of missile threats, including the long-range ones. However, both the laser gun opponents and the supporters of the anti-missile missile systems maintain that in the best case scenario, the laser gun can only offer a solution to short-range rockets. "It is not a good idea to intercept a Scud or, God forbid, a Shehab at a range of two kilometers from its target. Its breakup can cause a great deal of damage, as we have seen during the Gulf War in 1991," the experts say.

A "request for proposals" was issued by the joint Israel Defense Forces and Defense Ministry armaments development authority two years ago, for a short-range, anti-missile missile system. A total of 10 proposals were made by the defense industry, three were selected and one is considered to be very serious.

"The ideas that are being examined appear to be promising in terms of performance and costs," a senior source at the Defense Ministry says. "By the end of the year we will make our decision."

In parallel, another initiative exists for the development for a medium-range, anti-missile missile system. The project for missiles with ranges of 50-200 kilometers (Fajr and Zelzal), was announced three months ago. This is a joint project of Raytheon, the American maker of the Patriot missiles, and Israel's Rafael armaments authority. Stunner, as the system is called, is a combination of technology from the Python air-to-air missile, made by Rafael, and that of the Patriot. The radar is made by Elta, a subsidiary of Israel Aircraft Industries. The cost of R&D is estimated to stand at $250 million. According to the estimates, each missile will cost $500,000.

A source at the Defense Ministry said that a medium-range, anti-missile missile system can be an excellent solution to "area defense." The same source estimates that two or three batteries of such missiles could offer defense to the area between Tel Aviv and the northern border.

"There is no doubt that the Stunner is a nice missile from a technological point of view," says Ozer Rubin, who headed the Arrow development project until 1999. "Its problem is that it will not be operational until 2011. What are we supposed to do until then?"