Air Defense: Lasers Over Lebanon
August 8, 2006: Many Israelis are complaining that development of a, laser based anti-missile system, called THEL, which was recently cancelled, could have been used to stop some of the Hizbollah rockets coming out of Lebanon. Meanwhile, the American partner in THEL development is now offering a smaller version, Skyguard, for protecting commercial aircraft from portable anti-aircraft missiles. The manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, originally developed THEL (Tactical High Energy Laser) for combat situations. Tests last year showed THEL was able to knock down barrages of incoming mortar shells.
Israel was a partner in the development of THEL, which was originally supposed to enter service in 2007. When THEL was cancelled earlier this year, the laser still needed work, but the THEL radar was already in good shape. In 2004, Israel used the THEL radar to detect incoming Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza, and this provided an opportunity to operate the radar under combat conditions.
The THEL system was designed to knock down larger, and better made, rockets than the home made Palestinian Kassam rockets. In other words, THEL would have been very useful knocking down the factory made rockets Hizbollah has been firing at Israel over the last few weeks.
The THEL laser and radar system can track up to sixty targets (mortar and artillery shells, rockets) at a time and fire on and destroy these projectiles at a range of up to five kilometers. THEL can destroy about a dozen targets a minute, at a cost of some $3,000 per shot. Each THEL system (radar and laser) could thus cover about ten kilometers of border. Most Hizbollah rockets were fired in groups of a dozen or more, so THEL, if it was in the right place, could zap about half of them. Of course, given how difficult THEL was to move, Hizbollah would endeavor to fire their rockets over some other stretch of border. The Israel-Lebanon border is 79 kilometers long.
It took nine years, and over a half a billion dollars, for American and Israeli engineers to get as far as they did (one working prototype system) with THEL. Aside from the systems size and cost, there's also the problem of lasers being weakened by clouds, fog, mist or even artificial smoke. For that reason, there's not a lot of enthusiasm for proceeding right now on such a bulky and expensive system for use against small rockets. But by the end of the decade, a smaller, and cheaper, version will be more attractive, and more likely to be purchased.
THEL is a bulky system, and not really mobile. Each system requires half a dozen or more large tractor trailer trucks to carry the radar, fuel supplies and laser. A new version, the MTHEL (Mobile Tactical High-Energy Laser) was designed (using three tractor-trailers) and was tested. Engineers believe that MTHEL could be ready for battlefield use in about six years, at a cost of another billion dollars. In another few years, engineers believe they could create a MTHEL that could fit in a hummer.
The costs of THEL and MTHEL were so high, that both the American and Israeli governments pulled their support earlier this year. The manufacturer put some of their own money into the project and came up with Skyguard. This is basically THEL, which is actually suited for defending an airport against someone using portable anti-aircraft missiles (like Stinger, or the Russian made SA-7) to attack aircraft landing or taking off. Skyguard would be cheaper than equipping thousands of aircraft with individual anti-missile systems. But first, THEL has to prove that it is reliable enough to stay on-line 24/7 (or nearly so), and act effectively if there is ever an attack. No one has yet tried using these missiles in the United States, but it has happened elsewhere, especially in Africa.
The first Skyguard system would cost about $150 million, with subsequent ones costing about 70 percent less. Skyguard will also be able to handle rockets, artillery projectiles, mortars, unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles. In other words, if you had a billion dollars to spare, you might be able to get a Skyguard system to defend northern Israel from rockets fired from Lebanon. Maybe. THEL is another example of technology that got out of the lab before it was ready to survive in the wild.