Israel is interested in an anti-drone “laser wall”

To destroy drones in flight, Israel plans to deploy airborne lasers. A new system, which will mount high-powered laser weapons on aircraft, is part of a wider technological effort to create defensive systems so comprehensive they can mitigate a range of low-cost weapons launched against the country , without costing a fortune to use .

In a speech to a think tank in Tel Aviv on February 1, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced his intention to defend the country with a “laser wall.”

“This will allow us, in the medium to long term, to surround Israel with a laser wall that will defend us against missiles, rockets, drones and other threats that will essentially remove the strongest card that our enemies have against us” , Bennett said, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Bennett’s plans call for this system to be ready and in use by 2023.

Last summer, Israeli defense giant Elbit released a video showing a laser system mounted on a small plane destroying a drone flying over a body of water. The aircraft was a modified Cessna Grand Caravan, a general-purpose commercial aircraft that is often used as a means of transportation for small groups of people. As seen in the video, the laser is operated by a crew of three on board.

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Operators found the drone, then focused the laser on a small section of the drone’s hull. After a few seconds, the laser scorched the drone’s casing and cogs, and the robot crashed into the sea. The principle, as Oren Sabag of Elbit Systems pointed out, is to destroy incoming threats before they reach population centers.

The Israeli government has publicly expressed concern that drones, launched from groups inside Syria and allegedly supplied by Iran, are routinely used as guided missiles against the country. The Houthis, one of several factions in Yemen’s ongoing civil war, have received foreign-built drones and deployed them against targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Low-cost drones offer range and precision previously unavailable to insurgents and armed groups without access to aircraft, allowing these groups to claim retaliatory strikes on buildings far from direct combat.

In this way, drones can be seen as fulfilling a similar role to Qasem rockets, a cheap and rudimentary weapon that became a mainstay of attacks on Israel in the 2000s. These rockets, which lack guidance systems, are the primary target of Israel’s Iron Dome defensive system, an extensive network of radars, sensors and missile batteries used to intercept rockets in flight.

The Iron Dome is effective at reducing the total number of rockets that explode, although like any defensive weapon system, it can be overwhelmed with numbers and fail to intercept every attack. It is also expensive, with the dollar cost of each interceptor fired being higher than that of the intercepted rocket, not to mention the actual development of the system itself.

During demonstrations of the new system last summer, the laser weapon destroyed drones at a distance of 1 km or 0.6 miles. The goal is for the system to eventually have a range of 12 miles, using a 100 kilowatt laser to quickly burn down any drone, missile or rocket it detects. Countries like the United States have also invested in ship-mounted laser systems to protect ships at sea from attack.

Defending an entire nation against incoming drones, rockets and missiles is a much more difficult task than putting a defensive system on a single ship. While the “laser wall” involves fixed and permanent defenses, this system would consist of flights of aircraft equipped with lasers. The system is promised on a cost analysis that considers each use of the laser to be cheaper than the drone, rocket or missile that the laser destroys. It may be possible, but it is also usually expensive to constantly patrol aircraft.

[Related: The US Navy is testing out drone-zapping laser weapons]

What systems like the Laser Interceptor will do, and what the Iron Dome currently allows, is a way to mitigate many types of attacks that could be launched against the country. Weapons, while largely seen from acquisition to use as apolitical tools, exist in a specific context and change the way leaders and governments understand the risk of certain actions.

Like any defensive weapon, the “laser wall” alone cannot alter the policy that has made its development prudent, nor promise indefinite security. Attack and defense are a kind of dialogue, and over time attackers can design or plan attacks that circumvent known defenses. And in a broader context, on the same day that Bennett announced the “laser wall”, the international human rights organization Amnesty International published a report stating that “Israeli authorities must be held accountable for committing the crime of apartheid against the Palestinians”.

As a technology that can mitigate the risks of an asymmetric attack, the “laser wall” appears to rely on sound engineering and hands-on testing. If the deployment follows, it will likely add a deeper layer of interception against future attacks and in doing so will likely save the lives of people who would otherwise die in rocket or drone launches.

Watch Elbit’s video of the interception below:

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