Air Defense: Now Israel Wants Laser Defense
August 15, 2006: Israel is working with the U.S. government to see if it could revive it's participation in the laser anti-missile system (THEL, or "Tactical High Energy Laser"). Israel dropped out of the project seven months ago, because of the expense of developing the system to the point where it would be ready for regular service. But after seeing Hizbullah fire over 2,000 rockets into northern Israel, and having the Palestinians fire a few dozen a month into southern Israel, the Israelis want to reconsider the new version of THEL. The American partner in THEL development is now offering a smaller version of THEL, 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.
The THEL laser and radar system was designed to 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. The Skyguard version has a range of up to eight kilometers, is using improved software and can more easily link to other radar systems to obtain targeting information. Skyguard is designed mainly for knocking down portable anti-aircraft missiles fired near airports, at aircraft that are landing or taking off.
Northrop Grumman now says that it can have an anti-rocket system ready in 18 months, at a development cost of $400 million. Each anti-rocket system would cost about $50 million, and eight or nine would be required to cover the Lebanese border. One or two could cover Gaza. Thus the total bill for just developing, building and installing the systems is about a billion dollars.
Israel would like the U.S. to help with the costs, for such a system could be useful in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Israel already gets over $2 billion a year in military aid, and the new Skyguard systems could come out of that. The Israeli artillery brass were making the argument that money spent on THEL would provide more benefit that billions spent on new jet fighters. Earlier this year, the air force won that argument. But now the artillery generals are coming back for another round. The artillery crowd believe that lasers and anti-missile systems like Arrow and Patriot PAC-3 are the future for Israel. It's missiles and rockets that pose the larger threat, and weapons for dealing with this ranger are needed.