How the Iron Beam Laser System Will Affect Israeli Air Defenses

Photo credit: Ministry of Defense

The Israel Ministry of Defense and the Israeli Air Force’s Air Defense Array are anticipating the deployment of the world’s first laser defense system, the Rafael and Elbit-made Iron Beam, along Israel’s borders within approximately a year.

While Rafael is the prime contractor of the Iron Beam laser project, the Elbit company is playing a role in developing the laser.

The border regions adjacent to Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria are ideal operational zones for the laser system, which has been in development for nearly 20 years. The laser system will be integrated alongside the Iron Dome system, also developed by Rafael and operational since 2011.

The control and command algorithms of the Iron Dome will determine when to activate the lasers and when to launch the Iron Dome’s kinetic interceptors, known as Tamir missiles, as well as which type of Tamir missile to launch. Some Tamir interceptors are equipped with special cameras, while others are guided by radar to their target.

Like the Iron Dome, the laser system can intercept rockets, mortar shells, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and missiles. However, the laser system is intended to complement the Iron Dome rather than replace it. The Iron Dome generally succeeded in intercepting over 90% of the aerial threats fired from Gaza that are en route to Israeli communities. On October 7, 2023, the Israeli home front faced the launch of about 3,000 rockets in one day, fired by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Iron Dome successfully intercepted many threats that day and in the days that followed.

However, the laser system offers several relative advantages:

First, the cost of operating the laser is only a few dollars (‘the electricity bill’), compared to an average cost of $50,000 per Tamir interceptor. Terrorist organizations in Gaza – Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – spent between $500 to $1,000 (Iranian funds) on each rocket they built, depending on its range and size, giving them an economic advantage.

While Hezbollah’s arsenal is significantly more expensive, it will still lose much of its economic advantage in terms of interception costs when the laser becomes operational. In addition to being much cheaper than traditional air defenses, the laser system does not require reloading. Furthermore, the laser hits its target within seconds, much faster than kinetic interceptors.

However, a 100-kilowatt laser like the current Iron Beam system has a range of about 8 to 10 kilometers, which is much shorter than the Iron Dome’s interception range, which reaches tens of kilometers. Additionally, each laser beam can deal with a single threat at a time, unlike the Iron Dome, which can intercept multiple aerial threats simultaneously.

In January 2020, the Ministry of Defense announced three different laser programs: a ground-based laser to complement the Iron Dome, a mobile laser system to protect military units during maneuvers, and a laser system operated on UAVs capable of intercepting aerial threats. The airborne version, developed by Elbit Systems, will allow Israel to use lasers against rockets above cloud cover and over enemy territory. The project to develop airborne laser interceptors made a breakthrough in 2021, when the Ministry of Defense and Elbit announced that a 100-kilowatt laser mounted on a Cessna aircraft at an altitude of 3,000 feet intercepted 100% of the UAVs participating in the trial. The interception range of the airborne laser is about 20 kilometers. However, the airborne system seems to be years away from operational capability.

The significant breakthrough in laser weapon development occurred when engineers managed to create electric-based systems instead of using the old chemical laser technology. In the future, one can imagine ground and airborne lasers intercepting numerous aerial threats at a low cost. The Iron Beam laser system can also be used to protect strategic sites such as power plants and ports.

Meanwhile, Israel’s allies are closely monitoring the development of this revolutionary technology. In December 2022, the American defense giant Lockheed Martin announced a partnership agreement with Rafael to develop an export version of the Iron Beam for the American market. The joint program aims to develop an export system using the laser from the Iron Beam system (rather than another laser developed by Lockheed Martin).

There is no doubt that the arrival of the Iron Beam laser system will dramatically and positively enhance Israel’s interception capabilities. However, the greatest potential appears to lie in the development of airborne laser cannons, which could potentially eliminate the need for home front alerts if they prove effective in intercepting threats early in enemy territory, rather than intercepting them over Israeli skies.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Yaakov Lappin

Yaakov Lappin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for our Newsletter

Sign up to stay current on Israel’s border conflict.
Skip to content