Analysis

Why Israel’s New Laser Interceptor Could Be a Game Changer

The clues lie in the Defense Ministry’s uncharacteristic optimism

A simulation of the new laser-based interception system.
Defense Ministry Spokesman's Office

The press release Wednesday on the start of the development of a laser-based missile-interception system could turn out of dramatic importance in defending Israel’s home front. Since the ‘90s, Israel and the United States have been examining the possibility of using lasers to intercept incoming ballistic missiles.

These projects, which were based on chemical lasers, were shelved in the first decade of this century after both countries’ experts concluded that laser-based systems for operational needs weren’t realistic at that time. Instead, the firing of interception missiles took center stage. Thus the Arrow was developed (in the ‘90s), as well as Iron Dome and Magic Wand (this past decade).

The acquisition of these systems, which entailed huge budgets, was accompanied by constant criticism from the proponents of laser technologies. Iron Dome has since proved itself with interception rates close to 90 percent in the full military operations and periodic rounds of fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Still, two key questions remain: Will the Israeli systems also function against a deluge of rockets, up to 1,000 or even 1,500 a day according to some of scenarios the military is rehearsing, if a war with Hezbollah breaks out in the north? And can Israel afford this – tens of thousands of dollars for each Iron Dome interception missile and about $3 million per Arrow missile?

In September, Haaretz reported that in the military’s next multiyear plan, which has been delayed because of Israel’s political and thus budgetary impasse, the possibility of laser interception would be considered. Now the Defense Ministry has gone a step further and announced that “the laser age is underway.”

Simulation of the laser missile interceptor system.Media Department/Defense Ministry

The head of research and development at the ministry, Brig. Gen. Yaniv Rotem, told reporters that in the future a technological breakthrough will let Israel add a very powerful laser as a solution to rocket threats. Rotem described the laser as a layer complementary to the existing system and be able to thwart mortar shells, antitank missiles and drones. Most of these threats fly at low altitudes (and some at short range) compared to the rockets intercepted by Iron Dome.

But Rotem’s remarks suggest that the low-level answer is expected to be gradually available for other threats. Top Defense Ministry people have put out an optimistic forecast: trials toward the middle of this year, experimental deployment in the south by the end of the year and a final conclusion on production and acquisition by next year. In the coming years, the intention is to invest hundreds of millions of shekels in developing the new system.

An old military saying holds that when developing weapons, the average project will cost three times as much as the original estimates. The Defense Ministry has always been skeptical regarding the laser systems. But this time the tone is completely different and definitely optimistic. Since the integrity and skill of the scientists and engineers is well-known, it must be assumed that this is their objective position, not the result of pressure from politicians hoping to chalk up achievements in the months before the election.

In any case, if the forecasts prove correct, this will be great tidings. The development people at the Defense Ministry, who are working with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Elbit Systems, say the breakthrough has been achieved by overcoming two main obstacles: joining a number of systems to ensure an effective hit on a target several kilometers away, and creating the possibility of sending precise and focused laser beams.

Theoretically, laser-based interception will enable more flexible and effective preparedness against short-range threats, make it easier to deploy systems to protect maneuvering forces (when the army is attacking in enemy territory) from similar threats, and reduce Israel’s spending on interceptions (to just a few dollars), even in comparison to Hezbollah’s relatively cheap rockets. It will also enable swift interception of most of the rockets and missiles while they’re still over enemy territory and eliminate the need for the constant production of interception missiles to refill the dwindling stockpiles.

“This will be an economic game changer the moment we attain it – and it will free up our budgets for other things,” Rotem said. It’s not certain that there is any immediate good news here for the old woman in the hospital corridor but the positive forecast emerging from the defense establishment is exceptional and surprising relative to its cautious stance regarding projects in in the past. If the experts are right, this is a dramatic development. Their assessments will already face the test in the next two years.