Despite legal, political and media pressure, Israel has rejected the use
of lasers to protect its citizens from Palestinian missiles. This is mainly
because of a test of the Skyguard system in the United States (at the White
Sands Missile Range), which resulted in only 22 percent of the 36 rockets fired
being detected and shot down.
last seven years, Palestinian terrorists have fired, from Gaza, some 2,000 homemade "Kassam" rockets, into
sparsely populated southern Israel. This has caused about a hundred casualties,
including a dozen deaths. Several hundred thousand Israelis are within range of
these inaccurate rockets, and they want some protection.
defense system in question has been around for over a decade, and was initially
called THEL (Tactical High Energy Laser) [VIDEO]. Israel dropped out of the THEL
project because of the expense of developing the system to the point where it
would be ready for regular service. The American partner in THEL development is
now offering a smaller version of THEL, called Skyguard, for protecting
commercial aircraft from portable anti-aircraft missiles. The manufacturer,
Northrop Grumman, originally developed THEL
for combat situations. Tests two years ago showed THEL was able to knock
down barrages of incoming mortar shells.
THEL (or SkyGuard, or the new name, Nautilus), looks good. 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, uses 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 said that it could have a laser anti-rocket system ready in 18
months, at a development cost of $400 million. Each anti-rocket system would
cost about $50 million, and one or two could protect against missiles from
Gaza. Thus the total bill for just developing, building and installing the
systems is about a billion dollars.
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.
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. The Israeli lawsuit is all
about getting THEL/SkyGuard/Natilus in
service ASAP, no matter what.
reality is that 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 proposed new version, the MTHEL (Mobile Tactical
High-Energy Laser) was designed (using three tractor-trailers) and 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.
development costs of THEL and MTHEL were so high, that both the American and
Israeli governments pulled their support two years ago. The manufacturer put
some of their own money into the project and came up with Skyguard. The pitch
is that 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. There is
not enough fear of such attacks in the U.S. to get SkyGuard funded, and
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 Israel from rockets fired from Lebanon or Gaza.
Maybe. THEL is another example of technology that got out of the lab before it
was ready to survive in the wild. What the Northrop engineers are saying is,
"give us another billion bucks and a few years, and we'll have it working
effectively." That is a pitch heard all too often in the Pentagon, and more
often than not, the outcome is not good.
Laser anti-aircraft systems are one of those weapons that can accurately
be described as "the weapon of the future, and always will be."