Airborne High-Power Laser : the new Israel’s multi-layered air defense system

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Israel’s Ministry of Defense announced today that it successfully intercepted multiple drones during a test of an airborne high-power laser weapon.

The demonstrated system is being hailed as “a strategic change in the air defense capabilities of the State of Israel” and could potentially add a vital capability to Israel’s multi-layered integrated air defense system.

While the new high-power laser has been tested against UAVs, statements made by officials involved with the demonstration show that the system is also intended to defend against rocket attacks.

The demonstration was carried out by the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) “Yanat” missile test unit, Israel’s Directorate of Defense Research and Development (DDR&D), and Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems. A press release accompanying the announcement states that multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) were intercepted and destroyed above a test range using the new airborne laser system.

Footage shared online shows the system deployed on a Cessna 208 Caravan behind a windowed panel on the left side of the aircraft’s rear fuselage. Few specifics about the laser system’s capabilities have been released, but DDR&D’s Head of Research and Development, Brig. Gen. Yaniv Rotem, stated that the system successfully intercepted drones at a range of more than 1km.

An HPL was installed on a light aircraft during the test series and was tested in several scenarios. It successfully intercepted and destroyed all of the targets that were launched throughout the test. Some of the targets were Elbit System’s own Sky-Striker loitering weapons.

The targets were intercepted at various ranges and flight altitudes, about 3,000 ft. above sea level. The test series is the first phase in a multi-year program led by the Directorate of Defense R&D and Elbit Systems to develop a laser system against a variety of long-range threats.

While the HPL-WS prototype has demonstrated the first step in the intercept of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), the new capability will be able to engage more challenging targets. “We believe in the use of a high-power laser to carry out low-cost airborne interception of rockets and hostile unmanned aircraft, closer to their launching areas and away from population centers. It offers a significant change in Israel’s defense capabilities. Oren Sabag, General Manager of Elbit Systems ISTAR, said.

Israel is among the few countries able to demonstrate this groundbreaking capability. Previous demonstrations involved laser weapon payloads developed under US technology demonstration programs and performed by HPL integrated on C-130 transport aircraft, MQ-9 drones, and AH-64E attack helicopters.
The objective HPL-WS will be able to augment Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) capabilities such as the Iron Dome.

By destroying enemy rockets at a much lower cost per kill, compared to the Iron Dome’s Tamir guided interceptor missiles that cost tens of thousands of dollars per intercept, HPL-WS challenges the asymmetric rockets threat with a competitive battle economy of only a few dollars per kill.

According to preliminary assessments, when the HPL-WS reaches full capacity, it will return the investment within few days of high-intensity battles as experienced during the recent operation ‘Guardians of the Walls’.

By destroying many of the rockets fired at Israel using low-cost laser as a first line of defense, Tamir missile interceptors will be saved to intercept the few rockets that will manage to evade the first laser ‘fence’.

Israel’s new airborne laser system is claimed to be able to “effectively intercept long-range threats at high altitudes regardless of weather conditions,” despite the fact that Israel’s Ministry of Defense has previously stated that laser systems do not work well in inclement weather or through cloud cover. Still, laser systems offer advantages over kinetic interceptors, in that cost-per-intercept is much lower despite the potential for high up-front procurement and research and development costs of the laser systems themselves.

While the most recent demonstration saw Israel’s new high-power laser shoot down multiple UAVs only, statements made by those developing the program show that this system could also offer a new tool in Israel’s growing arsenal of rocket defenses. Oren Sabag, General Manager of Elbit Systems Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) Division, said that “that the use of a high-power laser to carry out low-cost airborne interception of rockets and hostile unmanned aircraft, closer to their launching areas and away from population centers, offers a significant change in Israel’s defense capabilities.”

A target UAS illuminated by a laser spot prior to interception

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