Israel's Laser Beam Defense System Can Blow Up Incoming Rockets In Mid Air

Laser weapons technology is more common than you might think.

By Ben Wolford on January 20, 2014 3:01 PM EST

Iron Beam
Israel is unveiling a new laser-based missile defense system to prevent bombings. This explosion was in Palestinian-held Gaza Strip. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Israel has plans to deploy a missile-defense laser called Iron Beam, a high-powered weapon that can heat up incoming short-range missiles until they explode, Israeli media reported over the weekend. Though seldom actually used, laser weapons technology like this has actually been around for years, and is increasingly common throughout the world. Laser missile-defense systems were first developed in the United States, and the American government subsidized the Israeli Iron Beam program, Reuters reported.

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The Israeli defense ministry already has an arsenal of shields to protect its cities and borders from Palestinian rocket attacks. The main anti-rocket system is Iron Dome, a conventional defense weapon that uses radar to guide interceptor rockets at incoming bombs. According to Reuters, Iron Dome cuts off 80 percent of Palestinian rockets. Another system, Arrow II, is used to thwart long-range rockets with atmospheric trajectories. Iron Beam will be used for the extremely close-range attacks from less than 4.5 miles away, which have lower trajectories. Traditional radar-guided systems have trouble nailing these warheads, according to the report, which cited a defense industry official who refused to be named.

If you're unfamiliar with laser technology, it's pretty much what you'd imagine. The basic principle is that a beam of concentrated electromagnetic waves can burn things. News reports about Iron Beam have not detailed the technology, and the state-run defense contractor, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, that produced Iron Beam, won't offer particulars. But it may be similar to the laser-based rocket defense system the U.S. first demonstrated in February 2010.

That laser weapon, called Airborne Laser Testbed, or ALTB, used a near-infrared laser to super-heat a warhead until it exploded, according to Popular Mechanics. The hope for the ALTB program was to deploy it with the Air Force to police the skies around rogue nuclear states. But the Department of Defense said it was too expensive and sidetracked the program in 2009. It appears the technology has been resurrected for active duty in Isreal, where the official told Reuters that Iron Beam would go into service next year.

There are other high-powered laser weapons, but some are low-powered and nonlethal. The major U.S. defense contrator Raytheon has a crowd-dispersing laser gun called "Silent Guardian." Popular Mechanics says the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has one for use on rioting inmates. It works just like the missile-defense laser, except it shoots a weaker beam that only burns through a tiny later of skin, just a fraction of an inch deep. Nonetheless it hurts like crazy. Says Raytheon: "Silent Guardian directs a focused beam of millimeter wave energy that travels at the speed of light producing an intolerable sensation that causes targeted individuals to flee or take cover."

OilPrice.com says Raytheon has expressly marketed the weapon for the oil and gas and maritime industries to defend against pirates, but also to use against civilians. They quoted a Raytheon vice president, who said, "If you are the Abu Dhabi Maritime Authority or the coast guard, for example, one of the things you are constantly frustrated with is local fishermen encroaching in on very expensive oil and gas infrastructure. It is not that you want to shoot anybody, or anything that they are doing is deliberate, but it could be dangerous if they moor on the wrong thing." So give them a nice laser zap. They'll get the idea.

Above photo courtesy of ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

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