Protection at the speed of light: Israel's iron beam in action

Israel's Iron Beam is the world’s first energy-based weapons system that uses a laser to shoot down incoming UAVs, rockets & mortars at a cost of $3.50 per shot.
Interesting Engineering

Something of a given in futuristic science fiction media, energy weapons like lasers have thus far failed to live up to expectations in the real world. 

Whether they be handheld or a planet-destroying battle station in scale, having the ability to destroy targets at a distance using focused light has not yet materialized. 

But that might be about to change. 

While some militaries worldwide are working on energy weapons for their warships and aircraft, Israel is looking to replace its "Iron Dome" with lower-cost alternatives. 

The "Iron Dome" has made it almost impossible for cheap but increasingly sophisticated Palestinian rockets to get through, but resupplying it is very expensive. For reference, each interceptor rocket launched costs somewhere in the region of $100,000–150,000.

For large-scale attacks against Israeli cities, this is just not sustainable over an extended period of time.  

So Israeli engineers are looking at the potential for developing laser-based alternatives. The so-called "Iron Beam" defensive laser battery system has made a lot of progress since its development started in 2009. 

While the information on the technical details is, understandably, top secret, some leaked details seem to indicate it has an effective range of 4.35 miles (7 km). It can also knock out incoming airborne weapons like missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, mortar shells, and the like.

It is also completely automated. 

The system, again, according to leaking reports, indicates that once contact is made with a target, the laser system takes as few as 4 seconds to burn it out of the sky. That is pretty impressive in anyone's book. 

The system, which has been built and tested for more than five years, will use solid-state lasers to clear the skies over Israel. Supported by funds from the United States, the system comprises an air defense radar, a command and control (C2) unit, and two HEL (high energy laser) systems.

Initially, so it is said, the main laser battery will pack a punch of between 100 and 150 kW apiece.

Once finished, rather than the "Iron Dome's" hundreds of thousands of dollars a shot, the new system will provide the same capability for a fraction of that at $3.50 a shot. Now, that is quite the cost savings!

However, this does not factor in the running and maintenance costs of the supporting systems for the main laser guns. 

The system, unlike Israel's existing rocket defense system, is very susceptible to the weather and, relatively speaking, is less effective at destroying incoming targets. 

At least for now. 

For this reason, it is envisaged to combine the power of the "Iron Dome" and "Iron Beam" to get the best of both worlds. 

Will it prove worthy of the investment? That is anyone's guess for now, but if the defensive power of the "Iron Dome" is anything to go by, we are confident Israel will make sure it is in the future.