Israel has endured rocket, artillery and mortar (RAM) attacks for decades. The country's recent success with the Iron Dome counter-RAM (C-RAM) air-defense system could lead to an expansion of the program, which might include a place for high-energy lasers.
The initial strategy was to punish and deter the enemy. In 1996, however, the U.S. and Israel launched a collaborative program to develop Nautilus, a megawatt-level chemical laser-based C-RAM weapon. Despite impressive performance in defeating rockets and artillery rounds in flight, the program was shelved in 2005 due to lack of interest and support by both sides.
Some of this may have stemmed from Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000. Relative quiet on the border caused leaders to lose interest in the C-RAM weapon, which was still in the technology demonstration phase. The defense ministry decided to skip the complex, cumbersome chemical laser and invest in high-energy solid-state lasers, which were then a decade from maturity.
RAM threats comprise a variety of types: high-speed artillery shells; small, low-signature mortars; and rockets that vary over trajectory, range and firing rates. Since countermeasures must take effect within seconds to be effective, it is necessary to intercept such targets at distances beyond 1,000 meters (3,300 ft.) and deliver enough energy to defeat them. For an effective laser intercept, where beam quality and brightness diminishes with range, only a high-power laser packs enough energy to defeat a fast-moving target. For most tactical lasers, that means an effective intercept window at distances of 1,000-3,000 meters.
In 2006, when the north of Israel was attacked with thousands of rockets for more than a month, Israeli leaders realized they could not ignore the threat any longer. Waiting for high-power lasers was not an option. The defense ministry considered more than 20 suggestions for C-RAM weapons, and eventually decided to back the guided-missile system known as Iron Dome, which was proposed by Rafael. Less than four years later the system was put to the test, defeating a rocket salvo from Gaza. Months later, with four batteries deployed, Iron Dome shot down more than 500 rockets, achieving an 85% intercept rate.
Iron Dome was proved to be a success in Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. Nevertheless, the defense ministry is enhancing the system to meet evolving challenges and to address requirements domestically and abroad. One of the key enhancements is the introduction of a much larger multimission radar for advanced units. This radar will increase the range and battlespace awareness of Iron Dome units, enabling coverage of larger areas and protecting against short- and medium-range threats.
To address the needs of potential export users, Rafael is expanding the scope of Iron Dome beyond C-RAM, to provide effective very-short-range air-defense system (Vshorad) for mobile or fixed sites. Integrating the standard Iron Dome radar or a low-level air-defense radar would result in a system with a much larger defensive footprint than Vshorad gun and missile systems.
A return to solid-state laser technology is also in sight as power and efficiency improve. In May 2012,test-fired a ruggedized and compact high-power solid-state laser designed to form the basic module of future weapons. The 13.3-kw, solid-state slab laser called Gamma is part of Northrop Grumman's Firestrike family of high-power lasers, which harness multiple modules to produce the power needed for weapon effects. The Gamma demonstrator is a single building block that would be combined with chain blocks to create laser power in excess of 100 kw.
Rheinmetall Defense of Germany has test-fired a 50-kw laser at mortar shells flying at 50 meters/sec. Company officials say that by employing Rheinmetall's Beam Superimposing Technology, a future laser weapon could deliver 100-kw output—considered the optimal power level for a C-RAM weapon.
The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, plans to deploy a solid-state laser weapon in the Persian Gulf in fiscal 2014—two years ahead of schedule. The laser, slated for the USS Ponce, an amphibious transport dock, has shot down a drone.