Israeli Lasers and the Future of American Missile Defense

Israel announced earlier this month that they have developed a breakthrough in fielding laser-based systems that allows them to intercept incoming rockets, drones and other aerial threats. The key breakthrough for the Israelis comes from the laser’s power and accuracy.  It now produces a sustained beam that can accurately target and destroy incoming missiles.

Lasers differ from other interceptor technology in that it doesn’t use projectiles or interceptor missiles. This makes lasers an inexpensive and limitless supply of defenses against rockets (if the power is on). This is important because bad actors like Iran has shown that the relatively inexpensive drones could be targeted by thousand-dollar missiles. In one extreme example, a US ally used a multimillion-dollar Patriot missile to shoot down a 200 dollar drone. Using lasers avoids those extremes and saves the defending state money.

But the technology is not without its flaws. The effective range of these laser weapons is relatively short. It can only engage one target, most likely a missile, at a time. And it must sustain the laser on the target for a certain amount of time to damage, destroy, or confuse its sensors. As Americans have known since the Gulf War, and the Russians found out in Syria, lasers can lose effectiveness in hazy atmospheric conditions created by sand storms, smoke, or heavy wind that kicks up dust.  Of course, there is never any of that is the Middle East or during a war, so the limitations make this an important complementary piece in missile defense.

The Israeli developments have an important application for US missile forces and strategy against missiles. The Airforce reported recently reported that its Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHIELD) could be tested on F15s as early as 2021 and later mounted on F16s and F35 fighters. Traditionally, the lasers have required vast amounts of power and a long cool downtime that made them ineffective. It is advances with cooling and power that allow the technology to be miniaturized and mounted on planes.

It has all the same limitations as the Israeli defense, but like they found, it remains formidable as an additional layer of defense. Lasers would force enemy defenses to expend more missiles to destroy both stealth and non-stealth fighters. Stealth bombers currently rely on their stealth, but this would add a defensive weapon system. And even slow-moving transports and electronic warfare planes could benefit and be tougher to kill. For example, the F35s are notorious gas hogs that make the fleet of air refueling ships particularly important and vulnerable to long-range missiles launched by advanced fighters like the J20. But if successful, the lasers would give them an important tool for survivability that makes even logistical platforms tough to kill.

The planes aren’t the only systems receiving upgrades. The navy recently reported that its High-Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-Dazzler with Surveillance – or HELIOS (HELIOS) lasers could be mounted on its Zumwalt class destroyers as early as 2021. These ships, along with the Arleigh Burke Class are some of the most important components in missile defenses. They have specialized radar and complement of missiles that are designed to withstand massive swarm attacks from potential adversaries like Russia and China.

Like the Israelis, the ships will benefit from an unlimited supply (as long as the ships remained powered) which frees up their intercepting missiles for other targets. It lowers the cost of defending against missiles and the lasers can be linked with the Aegis technology for speedier targeting and interception.

History is littered with super technologies that over-promised and under-delivered. The King Tiger tank from Germany and the super Battleships of the Japanese were supposed to win the war for them.  But they both had limited effect. And the F35 this has a host of problems. Plus, this technology is only in its advanced testing phase and would have limitations once it is fielded.

The potential threats from adversaries fielding new and faster rockets as well as numerous low tech dangers like drones produces scary, clickbait headlines about the threat they post. But the strength in defence lies in having multiple, interlocking systems that overlap and are continually upgraded to meet them. The Israelis will use lasers to supplement their Iron Dome missile defence, and they are adding underground sensors to detect infiltration from those who fire shoulder-mounted rockets. And the US is using lasers to add another layer to their combat air patrol, AEGIS cruisers, and close-in weapon systems. Readers can be reasonably confident that Western nations can meet current and future threats.