Air Defense: Iron Beam Goes To War

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April 21, 2022: Israel revealed that Iron Beam, a key component of its new Laser Wall air defense system, passed extensive tests in March demonstrating it could destroy rockets, mortar shells, ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) and UAVs. A short video was released showing the intercepts of all these targets except the ATGM. Like all new Israeli air-defense systems, Iron Beam will soon be at work defending Israel from ongoing attacks by Islamic terrorists and Iran-backed groups in Syria as well as Gaza. This gives Israeli defense firms an edge because their new systems must not only pass realistic tests, as Iron Beam just did, but also immediately put into service against ongoing attacks. Thus, if the new system works, it is deemed “combat proven” and is easier to export. The Israeli military is not a large enough customer to buy as many new weapons as Israeli firms must sell to make a profit.

Iron Beam was developed by Israeli firm Raphael, with the Israeli Defense Ministry covering most of the development costs. Iron Beam uses a single HEL (High Energy Laser) which requires more power than similar systems, but those higher power requirements make it possible to achieve an effective range of up to 7,000 meters. An Iron Beam battery consists of a truck-mounted radar, another truck carrying the control center and two truck-mounted Iron Beam systems, which includes a generator to supply electricity. The key advantage is that it costs $3.50 worth of electricity to destroy a target with an Iron Beam versus $100,000 if you use an interceptor rocket like Iron Dome.

Iron beam has been in development since 2009 and was expected to be ready sooner but problems with range, target detection and reliability delayed delivery of a combat ready system. There are still problems with certain atmospheric conditions, like fog, mist or even sand storms. This has been a problem for all laser systems since battlefield lasers were first introduced in the 1960s for target identification. This made the U.S. Air Force Paveway guided bombs possible. Laser range-finders were another widely used system that gradually improved in terms of range and reliability despite atmospheric conditions that degraded laser effectiveness. Under clear weather conditions the first Paveway guided bombs could hit targets 14 kilometers distant (from the launching aircraft). This laser tech was also used for measuring range accurately and was soon used in tanks and warships. Laser range finders and guidance systems use low power lasers that, in some cases, could blind people that looked at a laser beam. The problem was fixed by developing laser light systems that were eye safe (did not damage eyes). But the eye damage problem made it obvious that lasers could also be used as weapons. The problem was that doing damage to more robust targets required a lot more electrical power as well as laser designs that emphasized damage.

HELs (High Energy Lasers) powerful enough to be weapons took decades to achieve sufficient range and accuracy to be effective, and Iron Beam is the latest example of this. Iron Beam has competition, including Laser Dome which can also intercept mortar shells, rockets and UAVs but at shorter ranges. Laser Dome was introduced by Elbit in 2020 as Drone Dome, a breakthrough in the development of lasers that can be used to intercept UAVs as well as mortar shells and rockets. Laser Dome, like Iron Beam, can be used alone or with Iron Dome, an innovative system developed by Elbit and entering service in 2011 using missiles to intercept rockets and UAVs.

Iron Dome system uses missiles and an innovative radar/software system that calculates the ballistic path of incoming rockets or mortar shells to determines if their trajectory would hit 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 and Iron Dome has intercepted 90 percent of the targets indicated as dangerous to people or structures.

Drone Dome uses 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.

Iron Beam surpassed Laser Dome in range and rapidity of taking on targets. Work continues on Laser Dome to match and surpass Iron Beam capabilities. This competition between Israeli defense firms is encouraged as it has proven effective at speeding up development of more capable and reliable weapons, especially in new areas where technologies are still maturing.

Laser dome has been successful enough to attract export customers. Britain bought several Drone Dome systems in 2021 and used one to protect a G7 summit meeting.

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, many Israeli laser weapons 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 and work continues on improving reliability under combat conditions. Because of the successful Iron Beam tests the Laser Wall will be operational in 2023, a year ahead of schedule.

Israel has been demonstrating performance regularly under combat conditions. For example, in 2020 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 since 2005 created a demand for specialized weapons to deal with the menace. Light Blade was one of the first laser systems that could handle these targets. Light Blade uses radar/optical sensors to identify and track the lethal balloons and then turns on 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.

Iron Beam is light enough to be used on aircraft that can fly above some forms of atmospheric obscurants like fog. The U.S. Army CLWS (Compact Laser Weapon System) is 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 and Iron Beam 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 or damage 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 also spurred development of laser weapons because they had an existing need for them to deal with ongoing attacks.

 


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