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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense, National Security and More

Israel’s Iron Beam: A Game-Changer or Waste of Money?

Iron Beam
Image Credit: U.S. Military.

After three days of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a fragile cease-fire holds. Israel was busy engaging enemy rockets during this period. Indeed, the fight serves as a reminder of why the nation is always looking for ways to improve its vaunted Iron Dome missile and rocket defense system, which continues to deliver impressive results. 

Israel is also trying to work lasers into a new system called Iron Beam. The country will invest around $150 million into Iron Beam, even though the United States has held off on appropriating funds into the new system.

Different Methods of Defense

Iron Beam might serve as not only a surface-to-air system, but also as a laser mounted on an airplane for air-to-air attacks. The earmark will be spent over six years. Israel wants over $300 million from the United States, but so far the Americans have resisted. The Congressional Research Service has outlined the advantages and disadvantages of Israel’s efforts to use directed energy for combat purposes. American lawmakers will likely wait and see how well the Iron Beam tests over the coming months.

Meanwhile, Iron Dome proved its mettle over the three days of conflict. Israel claims it shot down more than 200 rockets with a 97% success rate. The Israelis have demonstrably developed some of the best air defenders in the world.

Iron Beam, a system proposed by Israeli defense giant Rafael, could build on that reputation. If it works as intended, the system will create a laser wall. The ground lasers would have a range of 4.1 miles, while the lasers mounted on airplanes would be developed by Elbit. There are also plans for space-based Iron Beam lasers.

Optimistic Assessments for Iron Beam

The Israeli Ministry of Defense has been singing the praises of Iron Beam since 2020. “Using the new technology, the defense establishment has succeeded in precisely focusing the beam on long-range targets, including overcoming atmospheric disturbances. This technology enables the development of highly effective operational systems that will serve as an additional layer of defense to secure the State of Israel by air, land and sea,” the Ministry told Jewish News Syndicate.

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told an audience in February that Israel wanted to have the Iron Beam ready in about a year. But the system will likely take much longer to be produced at scale.

Rafael tested a prototype this year. The defense contractor believes the system could someday be used against mines, mortar rounds, and anti-tank missiles, as well as countering attacks from drones, rockets, and conventional missiles. It would be a cost-effective system as well. Each Iron Dome Tamir interceptor missile costs between $50,000 and $100,000, while an electronic blast from Iron Beam might cost as little as $1. The main element would be a fiber-optic laser that “super heats” to knock out projectiles. Iron Beam could take out a target in seconds.

Many of Iron Beam’s potential capabilities have not been tested and remain conceptual. The system might initially be used to complement Iron Dome, and not fully replace it. Iron Beam would have to be effective against drone swarms, with the ability to engage multiple targets at once. It probably will not be ready by 2023 as Israeli political leadership optimistically claimed. It will more likely take several years for the lasers to be ready to completely protect the country. 

The system’s potential is intriguing, especially if it can supplement the more expensive Tamir interceptors while Israel’s enemies are forced to spend significant amounts of money on projectiles targeting Israel. The Israelis can take some time improving the Iron Beam system while Iron Dome continues to protect the homeland.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Fluffy Dog

    August 8, 2022 at 7:33 pm

    “Iron Beam would have to be effective against drone swarms, with the ability to engage multiple targets at once.”
    The effectiveness of a swarm is defined by its ability to coordinate actions between the drones, i.e., to communicate. That can be disrupted without using a laser by jamming. After that, it’s a field day for the laser.
    As for time available… Assuming that the distance to an incoming swarm at detection is 1 km and that drone speed (used in such an attack) is not more than 150 km/h = 41 m/sec, the Iron Dome has time. A drone would have 1000 m / 41 m/sec = 24 sec to reach the target at best, and it takes less than 5 sec to kill it. That’s 5 drones per laser, more if they are slower. How many drones are supposed to be in a swarm? In 2021 Israel used against Hamas a swarm, which hit “dozens of targets.” But those were slow quadcopters.
    More importantly, how long does it take to kill a cruise missile with a laser and at what energy expenditure?

  2. Scottfs

    August 9, 2022 at 12:09 am

    The bugs have to be worked out. But the advantages of directed high energy beams are obvious. And the technology can only improve.

    I believe this is the future. Of course, I’ve been saying that for twenty years

  3. Jacksonian Libertarian

    August 9, 2022 at 10:12 am

    97% reliability against dumb rockets is impressive, and no doubt gives hope to Surface Warships that they can survive a smart missile attack.

    While Laser defenses are the hope of the future, they are yet to be deployed, and penetration countermeasures like mirrors and ablative armor might make them useless. Until then, defenses are tasked with hitting a dodging bullet with a bullet. Even subsonic missiles cross 1km in 4 seconds, and simultaneous attacks easily overwhelm defenses.

  4. Scottfs

    August 14, 2022 at 7:13 pm

    Yes, mirrors may help, but both that and ablative armour on a missile will not work. Makes it way too heavy and expensive. Laser and high energy particle beams are here to stay. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative will eventually bear fruit.

    Artificial intelligent and a robust delivery platform can handle multiple target with ease. Drones are a new wrinkle, but these laser weapons are ideal for that threat

    At least at this point, these seem to be very promising defensive weapons.

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