Air Defense: Laser Wall Defense


March 7, 2022: In early 2022 Israel announced that it was going to deploy a “laser wall” air defense system and do it in less than two years. This seemed unrealistic to most air defense experts, but Israel has been developing more capable laser anti-aircraft weapons for over a decade, along with radar systems that can detect the smallest UAVs. Israeli laser weapons have evolved with new technology that uses less power to bring down airborne objects (aircraft, UAVs and missiles) at longer ranges. Israeli lasers and targeting systems were developed that brought down aircraft by concentrating on the most vulnerable (to laser damage) components. As a result, Israeli lasers do the job in a subtle fashion, not with the more spectacular science fiction laser that depends on a visible beam that blows targets apart. Reality is more low-key, energy-efficient and achievable. These gradual lasers currently have effective ranges of from two to seven kilometers.

Israel has been demonstrating this performance regularly under combat conditions. For example, two years an Israeli firm introduced Light Blade, an air defense weapon designed to detect and shoot down the balloons and kites Hamas has been using from Gaza to transport incendiaries or small explosives into southern Israel. These devices cause more psychological problems than physical damage but the Israelis threatened are voters, and the devices do cause casualties or, more often, property damage and brush fires. The thousands of rockets, mortar shells and now kite and balloon attacks from Gaza over the last fifteen years created a demand for specialized weapons to deal with the menace. Light Blade is the latest cure to appear. Light Blades sensors identify and track the lethal balloons and use a focused laser to explode the balloons before they reach Israeli air space. During the first ten days of use, one Light Blade system downed 150 balloons carrying incendiaries. The interception rate was nearly a hundred percent. Light Blade is also effective against kites and small UAVs.

Another Israeli firm had already developed SupervisIR, a radar that can detect small, slow-moving, low altitude targets and pass that data on to a weapons system. When combined with Light Blade, over 90 percent of available targets were detected, tracked and destroyed by the Light Blade variable focus laser. The ability of the Light Blade laser to focus into a powerful enough beam to bring down the balloons or kites was an important breakthrough. This means the laser beam is “eye safe” if it hits anyone in a passing aircraft. The beam focuses only long enough to burn through the balloons or kites and bring them down. Light Blade can hit targets within five kilometers of the truck (pickup or hummer type) mounted laser and fire control system.

There are several other new Israeli laser air defense systems, like Iron Beam and Drone Dome that use more powerful lasers to bring down small UAVs, mortar shells and rockets. Development of these weapons has been going on for over a decade. Earlier in 2020 an Israeli firm, Elbit, introduced Drone Dome, a breakthrough in the development of lasers that can be used to intercept mortar shells, UAVs and rockets.

Laser systems like this have been in development elsewhere for a long time, but so far no one has been able to develop a laser with the range and destructive power to perform like the new Israeli systems like Drone Dome. Also called Laser Dome, a name implying that this laser system would complement the existing Iron Dome system that uses missiles and an innovative radar/software system that ignores ballistic, rockets or mortar shells whose trajectory would mean hitting unoccupied land where there will be no injuries or serious damage. Most objects fired at Israel end up landing in unoccupied areas and the few objects that are dangerous are intercepted by missiles. This has proved very effective.

Drone Dome is described as using a solid-state electric laser at an effective range of five kilometers. Unlike missile-based systems, the cost of bringing down each target is several dollars’ worth of electricity. A diesel generator/capacitor system can fire once every few seconds for as long as power is available. Drone Dome combines multiple laser beams to obtain a useful amount of laser power at longer ranges. Fire control systems for quickly, accurately and repeatedly aiming a laser have already been developed. The main problem is obtaining effective burn (laser beam-created heat) at longer ranges to do enough damage to bring down or destroy the incoming warhead. Drone Dome also contains a target identification computer and electronic systems that can disable some UAVs that are vulnerable to having their flight controls disrupted. If this doesn’t work, then the laser is employed. Each Drone Dome system provides 360-degree protection.

With Drone Dome added, an Iron Dome battery, integrating the laser and missile launchers into one fire control network that can take down a lot of targets the laser can reach rather than use the $60,000 Iron Dome missiles. Iron Dome would continue to take care of longer-range targets. This would make Iron Dome a lot cheaper to operate and more effective against mass attacks when dozens of rockets are fired at the same target in a short time. Britain bought several Drone Dome systems in 2021 and used one to protect a G7 summit meeting.

Some of the Laser Dome concepts have already been used in other laser weapons. One of these is Iron Beam from another Israeli firm (Raphael). Iron Beam uses a single HEL (High Energy Laser) which requires more power and has a range of 7,000 meters. Another HEL example is the U.S. Army CLWS (Compact Laser Weapon System) which is currently only capable of handling UAVs. CLWS is a laser weapon light enough (2.2 tons) to mount on helicopters or hummers and can destroy small UAVs up to two-kilometers away, while it can disable or destroy the sensors (vidcams) on a UAV up to seven kilometers. The CLWS fire control system will automatically track and keep the laser firing on a selected target. It can take up to 15 seconds of laser fire to bring down a UAV or destroy its camera. This is the tech that Laser Dome improved sufficiently to destroy UAVs with one shot and at longer ranges.

Another American system, LaWS (Laser Weapon System) was developed for the U.S. Navy and was installed on one warship for several years before it was installed on several more. In 2013 the navy announced that it had developed a laser technology capable of being useful in combat. This was not a sudden development but has been going on for most of the last decade. In 2010 the navy successfully tested this new laser weapon, which is actually six solid-state lasers acting in unison, to destroy a small UAV. LaWS was not yet powerful enough to do this at the range, and power level, required to cripple the most dangerous targets; missiles and small boats. The manufacturer convinced the navy that it was just a matter of tweaking the technology to get the needed effectiveness. In 2013 another test was run, under more realistic conditions. LaWS worked, knocking down a larger UAV at a longer range. At that point, the navy decided to install the system in a warship for even more realistic testing. Those tests took place in 2014 and were successful enough to install LaWS on at least one warship to be used to deliver warnings (at low power) while at full strength (30 kilowatts).

The LaWS laser cannon was mounted on a KINETO Tracking Mount, which is similar, but larger (and more accurate), than the mount used by the Phalanx CIWS (Close-In Weapons System). The navy laser weapon tests used the radar and tracking system of the CIWS. Back in 2009 CIWS was upgraded so that its sensors could detect speedboats, small aircraft, and naval mines. This was crucial because knocking down UAVs is not something that the navy needs help with. But the ability to do enough damage to disable boats or missiles that are over two kilometers distant meant the LaWS was worth mounting on a warship.

LaWS kept passing tests. These included disabling a ScanEagel UAV, destroying an RPG rocket and burning out the outboard engine of a speed boat. LaWAS also proved useful in detecting small boats or aerial objects at night and in bad weather. LaWAS worked despite mist and light sand storms, though in heavier sand storms performance was much reduced. In 2018 LaWAS was moved to a large amphibious ship for continued testing and LaWAS was installed on two more ships in 2020. The manufacturer continues to work on extending the range and increasing damage inflicted on targets. LaWAS uses less than a dollars’ worth of power use and is supplied by a diesel generator separate from the ship power supply. In other words, LaWAS is still a work in progress. Israel takes the same approach but does it faster and is usually able to test new systems under combat conditions.

Nearly half a century of engineering work has produced thousands of improvements, and a few breakthroughs, in making the lasers more powerful, accurate, and lethal. More efficient energy storage has made it possible to use lighter, shorter range, ground-based lasers effective against smaller targets like mortar shells and short-range rockets.

Israel believes it has made enough progress with new systems to provide enough affordable and reliable laser-based low-altitude air defense systems to complement missile-based systems like Iron Dome, which has proved it is effective against faster high-altitude targets and so far has a 90 percent success rate at detecting and destroying targets. Iron Dome was long seen as too good to be true but eventually Iron Dome was accepted because it did work. A laser version of Iron Dome along with other short-range/low-altitude laser defense systems is already a reality. The laser wall is adapting existing anti-aircraft laser tech to work in an integrated (missile, electronic jammer and laser) system.




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