By Jonathan Davis
Until now, talk of high-powered laser weapons has been largely confined to science fiction films, even though lower-powered beams have been a reality for some time.
But the Israeli military is making substantial gains in the area of laser weapon technology beyond using them to simply blind drones or burn holes in small boats.
Defense News reports:
Israel’s Ministry of Defense announced Jan. 8 a “breakthrough” in its development of laser technology to intercept aerial threats. This technological milestone promises to strengthen Israel’s lower-tier missile defense and provides another opportunity for U.S.-Israel research and development cooperation.
In 2006, the same Israeli committee that recommended the development of Iron Dome for short-range missile defense also recommended that Israel continue R&D to develop a solid-state laser for the same purpose.
Last week’s announcement demonstrates the prescience of that recommendation.
Israeli government scientists and industry partners have developed a solid-state laser source capable of producing a coherent beam, based on several smaller laser modules, strong enough to intercept lower-tier rockets and missiles.
The primary breakthrough relates to the laser beam’s power and accuracy. Israel’s MoD reports that it has been able to “target and stabilize the beam” from a distance.
The Israeli advances in laser technology for missile defense comes as regional competitors like Iran build better ballistic missiles and great power competitors like Russia and China build and field hypersonic missiles.
At present, no anti-ballistic missile system using standard missile interceptors is believed to have much of a chance of downing a missile approaching at hypersonic speeds.
But of course, lasers traveling at the speed of light is a different story altogether. Getting the beam to the missile is one challenge, but getting a beam to a missile that is powerful enough to actually destroy it is another thing altogether.
It appears as though the Israelis are closer to solving both dilemmas:
Despite these significant advantages, contrary to some initial public reports, current technical realities present some limitations.
This laser technology, for example, will not provide interception at the speed of light. While the laser beam would indeed reach the target at the speed of light, traveling much faster to the target than a traditional kinetic interceptor, it would need to remain on the target for several seconds before destroying it. The amount of time required would depend on variables such as distance, beam power, atmospheric conditions, the nature of the target and the laser’s exact spot on the target.
And there is the issue of multiple incoming targets. Even a laser beam that is powerful enough to bring down missiles could only focus on one at a time; Israeli’s Iron Dome anti-missile system can fire multiple interceptors in many directions.
There is a lot of work to do before there is a functional anti-missile laser system but strides are being made. What’s really needed is a power breakthrough: A power plant portable enough to build cost-effectively and that would be sufficient to deploy rapidly and in a sustainable manner:
The U.S. Department of Defense has also made progress in laser weapon technology. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps have started testing high-energy and directed lasers designed to destroy drones. The Air Force successfully tested a laser system capable of shooting down missiles, designed to eventually be used on airplanes. Current technology for lasers is limited to 50-150 kilowatts only capable of destroying drones and some incoming enemy tactical missiles.
The Israeli pairing of this laser capability with Iron Dome may be relevant to the U.S. Army, which has acquired two batteries of the missile defense system.
The next step in laser technology is increasing the output of lasers to defeat higher-end threats found in the Russian, Chinese and Iranian military arsenals. If past is prologue, this will take more time.