“It may sound like science fiction, but it’s real.” Israeli President Naftali Bennet’s disclaimer aptly describes the Jewish state’s new Iron Beam laser interception system. Last month, Israel’s Ministry of Defense announced its successful test launch of its laser missile defense system, capable of intercepting rockets, mortars and anti-tank missiles. This “game-changing” technology, developed by the Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, is the world’s first energy-based missile defense system that employs a laser beam to silently strike down incoming attacks.
Reminiscent of former U.S. President Ronald Regan’s Star Wars” program, this revolutionary system will constitute the fifth component of Israel’s integrated air defense system. The Iron Beam is expected to enter service in 2023, unquestionably elevating the Jewish state’s defense system.
Following the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the need for Israel to develop advanced defensive measures to counter its hostile neighbors became a priority for the IDF. By the early 2000’s, Palestinian militants began to launch rockets targeting Israel from the Gaza region, elevating the desire for sophisticated air-defense technology. The Iron Dome system was conceptualized to meet this specification. The mobile all-weather air defense system can effectively thwart rocket and missile attacks with a 90% success rate, making it the most sophisticated defense system across the globe.
First deployed in the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, the Dome proved successful in intercepting a rocket launched from Gaza. In the last decade, the critical defense system has saved hundreds of thousands of Israeli lives. The Dome also minimizes the extension of conflict, since without its interceptions, the IDF would likely respond to more lethal attacks with greater aggression, resulting in increased casualties in Gaza.
While Israel’s Iron Dome arguably represents the backbone of the country’s air-defense program, it has its downsides. First, the Dome is extremely expensive to operate. Each interception costs approximately $100,000-$150,000. In the latest Hamas-Israel flare up in 2021, militants launched over 4,300 unguided rockets and mortars toward Israel. Although the Iron Dome effectively intercepted 90% of the barrage, it was a very costly defense. The Dome’s second con is its sensitivity to swarm tactics. Over the years, Gaza’s militants have discovered how to exploit the Dome with saturated strikes from closer locations, which overwhelm its capabilities. These two downsides have posed a serious problem for the IDF, and the Iron Beam may be the exact supplement needed for rectification.
While Rafael Advanced Defense Systems initially unveiled its Iron Beam prototype at the 2014 Singapore Air Show, the conception of this technically originated years earlier. In 1983, The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) was established in the U.S. under the Reagan administration with the sole objective to oversee the development of a missile defense program in America. This Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), dubbed “Star Wars,” encompassed the study of a variety of advanced weapons concepts, including lasers. Shortcomings in the power of available lasers at the time, however, made the technology impossible for use in the missile defense realm.
A few years later in 1995, a joint U.S.-Israel collaborative project produced the Nautilus Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL). The system successfully shot down 28 Katyusha rockets and other artillery shells in test launches but was ultimately deemed inoperable due to the laser’s downsides, which included its expensive maintenance and sensitivity to atmospheric conditions. The Nautilus project was canceled within a year, but the goal to create an effective laser beam system remained a critical mission for Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF).
In 2014, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems debuted its cutting-edge missile shield nicknamed the Iron Beam. Designed to destroy short-range rockets, artillery and other mortars too small for the Iron Dome to intercept effectively, the one-of-a-kind technology provides an additional much-needed layer to Israel’s security apparatus. The Beam will use a “directed high energy laser beam” to take out hostile targets with ranges up to 4.3 miles. The IDF is intending to develop the laser with 100 kilowatts of power, which will allow the system to detect drones up to a maximum range of 12.4 miles away.
While the Beam will supplement Israel’s pillared defense system, it can also function as a stand-alone system. Compared to the Iron Dome’s ultra-high interception cost, the Beam will clock out at a mere $2 per interception. Additionally, the beam’s low cost will enable the IDF to deploy them in large numbers, making Gaza’s strategy of overwhelming the Dome with a barrage of attacks a moot point.
In recent years, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies across the Middle East have threatened Israel’s borders with rockets, mortars and various artillery shells. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) spends millions of dollars to fund, equip and train its regional militias to attack Israel. Explained by President Bennet, the Beam “will allow us (IDF), in the medium to long term, to surround Israel with a laser wall that protects us from missiles, rockets, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and other threats.” He added, “In fact, it will take away the strongest card the enemy has against us…we will have nullified the ring of fire that Iran has set up on our borders. The whole thing will no longer pay off.”
While the introduction of the Iron Beam will unquestionably be an unprecedented milestone for the Israeli state, its current viability long-term has left some industry experts concerned. According to the Jerusalem-based analyst Seth Frantzman, the Beam possesses “technology that has been worked on for many years, usually without success.” He elaborated that until the Beam is put to the operational test on long-endurance drones, its expected debut in Israel’s military won’t be as imminent as President Bennet asserts.
Whether the Iron Beam enters service with the IDF in 2023 or a few years down the line, its one-of-a-kind attributes will be unrivaled across the world. The Beam’s technology will complement the Jewish state’s already robust pillars of defense.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.