Iron Beam, Explained: Israel’s ministerial committee for procurement of arms has approved approximately $150 million in funding toward the development of its laser air defense system dubbed the Iron Beam. While Israeli officials initially hoped the U.S. would contribute to its laser-based defense development, American officials have currently denied providing monetary aid to the project. The technology’s funding was approved after it was showcased to U.S. President Biden during his Middle East visit in June. The Iron Beam, an unparalleled air-defense asset, passed a series of preliminary tests which confirmed the system is the first of its kind to be utilized militarily.
In the days leading up to president Biden’s arrival in the Jewish state, Israeli defense officials revealed that they were in possession of a working prototype of the Iron beam high-powered laser gun. While the weapon is still years away from being operationally capable, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennet called the technology a “strategic game changer” that he vowed to use to “surround Israel with a laser wall.” When the U.S. president arrived in Israel, the country’s Defense Ministry showcased a display of the country’s top-tier defense systems. The short-range Iron Dome, medium-range David’s Sling, long-range Arrow were displayed alongside the working prototype of the Iron Beam.
According to The Times of Israel, Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz briefed Biden on a range of security issues, ultimately hoping to procure some form of American investment in the Iron Bean project. In addition to Gantz’s remarks on the increasingly dangerous Iranian threat, the defense minister also outlined a list of security agreements reached between the Jewish state and several of its neighbors who are not part of the Abraham Accords. The unprecedented series of peace agreements, signed by Bahrain, the UAE, Sudan and Morocco, formalized the country’s normalization ties with Israel in 2020. Gantz reportedly asked Biden to “help advance these agreements further and eventually enable them to be made public.”
Gantz was likely referring to the formation of a joint air defense network, known as the Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD). In June, Gantz announced that the initiative would include countries that have represented Israel’s adversaries for decades. Iran’s escalatory behavior in the region has spurred an urgency for its enemies to cooperate. According to Breaking Defense, “Among nations to keep an eye on as potentially participating in the MEAD would be Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Notably, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have had preliminary discussions about purchasing Israeli-made air defense systems.”
The prioritization to create a formidable counter to Iranian projectile attacks across the region may motivate the U.S. to consider proving monetarily to the Iron Beam project. Developed from the ground up by the Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the Iron Beam is the globe’s first energy-based missile defense system. Rafael first showcased its Iron Beam prototype in 2014 at the Singapore Air Show, though its inception dates back much further. The Beam’s technology is largely based off of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (DSI), which was formed under the Reagan administration in the early 1980’s. As described in an earlier article in 19FortyFive, 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.”
By 2014, Israel possessed the technology needed to reveal its laser-beam prototype. The ground-based laser is designed to supplement the short-range air defense provided by Israel’s Iron Dome. The Dome, which has remained operational for over a decade, was created to intercept and destroy short-range projectiles from distances ranging from 2.5 miles to 90 miles away. The protective shield has a 90% success rate and has served as Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF) most valuable asset in a number of wars since its introduction. Recently, the Dome has been instrumental in taking down unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), cruise missiles and mortar shells as these weapons have been launched more often at the country’s borders.
The Iron Dome will likely remain the mainstay of Israel’s air defense system for many years to come. However, the Dome’s shortfalls can be rectified by the advanced technology the Iron Dome can theoretically provide. The Dome’s production and maintenance is wildly pricey, while the Beam costs a mere $2 per interception. Additionally, the Dome is vulnerable to swarm tactics- a strategy used by Israel’s enemies to overwhelm the system by launching numerous projectiles at the same time targeting the same spot. The Beam could help fill in this gap.
Although the U.S. has not signed off on providing funds for Israel’s Iron Beam project yet, prospects for a reversal in this decision are high. As Iran continues to ramp up its region-wide attacks vis-à-vis proxy warfare, the U.S. may be more inclined to contribute to the cutting-edge counter the Iron Beam would provide.
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.