The stakes of 21st-century warfare are rising, fast.
Israel's Defense Ministry has teamed up with a contractor called Elbit Systems Ltd to develop the first airborne laser weapon capable of shooting drones out of the sky, in addition to other flying targets, according to a Monday statement from officials, in an initial report from Reuters.
And, after a successful test, officials also say the prototype might be ready in 2025.
A 100-kW prototype airborne laser shot down a drone in Israel
The laser system has yet to be named, but it might be integrated into Israel's multi-tier air defense network, which includes the Iron Dome system, which is designed to take out short-range rockets. The new laser weapon might also be incorporated into the David's Sling and Arrow systems, used to fend off ballistic missiles. Early tests of the laser happened while flying on light aircraft, and successfully took down numerous drones at ranges of roughly half a mile (1 km), according to a statement from Brigadier-General Yaniv Rotem of Israel's ministry of research and development section. "As far as we know we are the first (country) — but maybe, for sure we are among the first countries — that have tried and succeeded (at) such an...interception," he said in the Reuters report.
The company, Elbit, also makes C-Music, an airborne defense system designed to "blind" incoming missiles before they can strike aircraft, said a Senior Official named Oren Sabag. The new laser weapon will use tracking methods, not unlike C-Music's, and destroy targets via a rapid heating process, to set fire to airborne targets within "a few seconds," according to the report.
Rotem added that a 100-kW prototype featuring a 12.5-mile (20-km) range might roll out in three to four years, which could mean a fully operational model might take even longer to come out. The defense ministry of Israel, in addition to Elbit, and the state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd are also collaborating on the development of a ground-based laser weapon capable of taking out aerial targets. These would feature a range of five to six miles (8 to 10 km), and roll out during or before 2025, according to Israel's ministry.
US Air Force is building its own laser defense system
Obviously, the airborne laser system will possess the distinct advantage of providing tactical support from above the clouds, which makes it weather-independent. Since inclement weather can reduce the effectiveness of ground-based lasers, this is a major plus, which is why the U.S. military is also developing an airborne laser defense system. In February of this year, the U.S. Air Force announced it would receive the first delivery of major components for a prototype of a tactical laser weapon that month. Notably, the weapon was slated to be fitted on fighter jets, with final components due to arrive in July.
Of course, this isn't the first airborne laser weapon capable of taking out airborne targets. In the early 1980s, a Boeing NKC-135A was equipped with a modified laser, and from 2002 to 2014, the Boeing YAL-1, too, was outfitted with an advanced airborne laser system (ABL). The latter used infrared detection to identify incoming missiles or other threats. Neither of the Boeing aircraft were designed to take down drones, which is the distinguishing characteristic of Israel's new airborne laser system.
This came as the latest move for the Air Force's Laboratory Self Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program, which has worked to bring these erstwhile sci-fi weapons to tactical fruition since it began in 2015. With a long-standing military relationship to the U.S. military, it's no surprise that Israel was the first, or at least among the first, to successfully test one of the most advanced weapons ever created.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article neglected to mention other airborne laser systems used by the U.S Air Force. While these didn't shoot down drones, a paragraph was added to briefly summarize the two aircraft.