Israel is to accelerate the development of laser-based missile defenses in a cost-cutting move to reduce dependence on its Iron Dome missile-based system and the high cost of shooting down aerial threats including saturation rocket fire and drone swarms.
Some of the advantages of laser-based missile defense systems include instant hits, pinpoint targeting and scalable laser power depending on mission requirements. While laser defenses are expensive to establish, they have negligible costs per shot once in place.
Other drawbacks include high power requirements, decreasing power with distance and sensitivity to atmospheric conditions.
At a security conference, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel will deploy a “laser wall” within a year in the country’s south and that laser defenses will be deployed on land, sea and air as a deterrent to Iran and its proxies.
Bennett said the development of laser-based defenses, “will allow us, in the medium to long term, to surround Israel with a laser wall that will defend us from missiles, rockets, UAVs and other threats that will essentially take away the strongest card our enemies have against us.”
He also highlighted the cost-effectiveness of laser-based defenses, saying an electric pulse costing only a few dollars can eliminate costly rockets and missiles deployed by Iran’s proxies. He added that Israel’s laser-based defenses could also help its friends in the region, hinting at future export sales.
Last year, Israel tested a laser mounted on a small commercial aircraft to shoot down unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), with a reported 100% success rate.
US defense contractor Lockheed Martin and Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems have signed an agreement in principle to develop a ground-based laser air defense system to complement Israel’s missile-based systems and strengthen its multi-layered air defenses.
Israel also built a prototype Iron Beam laser defense system, which was first unveiled in 2014. While there are scant details about the system’s specifications, it was reported to have a range of seven kilometers and can destroy missiles, UAVs or mortar shells within about four seconds after the twin high-energy fiber-optic lasers contact their target.
Despite the Iron Beam’s potential, Israeli defense officials concluded that laser technology was not mature enough at the time. Its limited range also meant it could not fully replace the Iron Dome, but could help it to intercept very short-range targets.
Israel’s urgency to develop laser-based missiles was highlighted during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, where some analysts speculated that the main reason Israel quickly agreed to an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with militant group Hamas was its supply of Iron Dome interceptor missiles was depleted.
Hamas tried to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome by firing volleys of rockets but the strategy was largely ineffective. However, some rockets did fall on Israel, causing damage and inflicting casualties.
Israel could in future offer to sell its proposed laser defense system to its newfound Arab partners including the UAE, Bahrain and possibly Qatar and Saudi Arabia through third channels such as the US.
Saudi Arabia has recently faced a spate of rocket and drone swarm attacks, with significant drone swarms in 2021 on the Riyadh oil refinery and the 2016 and 2019 ballistic missile attacks on Mecca province. The attacks were launched by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In January, the UAE intercepted a missile fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen during Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to the country. Previous Houthi strikes on the UAE targeted Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Last year, the Israeli-operated oil tanker Mercer Street was attacked off Oman by a suicide UAV of alleged Iranian origin. An unsuccessful drone attack on the ship was carried out the previous day, with the UAV falling harmlessly into the water.
These attacks may create a market for low-cost missile and drone interception technologies in the Middle East, which Israel could potentially profit from.
Last year, the US withdrew its Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia, even as the country was subjected to increasing UAV and missile attacks. Some suggested the withdrawal was indicative of a US strategic shift of emphasis from the Middle East to the Pacific.
In turn, this could facilitate the transfer of Israel’s laser defense technology to US-allied Arab states, effectively outsourcing America’s missile defense role to regional states while freeing up US resources to counter China in the Pacific.