Israel’s Ministry of Defense completed its first-ever interception test using an airborne “high-power laser system” on June 21. “The Directorate of Defense Research and Development in the Ministry of Defense, together with Elbit Systems and the Israel Air Force, has successfully intercepted several UAVs using an airborne High-Power Laser Weapon System (HPL-WS),” the defense ministry said in a statement. “The UAVs were intercepted at various ranges and flight altitudes.”
This is the latest Israeli advance in countering emerging drone threats. Israel has pioneered air defenses against drones, such as using its Iron Dome missile interceptor to shoot down a drone for the first time during the May Gaza war. Additionally, Israeli defense companies are building small tactical drones and drones that can intercept drones. It is part of the overall networked warfare that Israel has rolled out as part of its Momentum five-year plan which also sees more use of fifth-generation aircraft such as the F-35 fighter jet.
The use of lasers by Israel to counter threats has been in the works for many years. However, Israel has faced the same challenges that the United States and other defense giants have faced to get lasers to work and be effective on the battlefield. From Lockheed Martin to other companies, the allure of lasers is nothing new. Israel hopes that its defense giants such as Elbit System and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems can put a laser in the field operationally in the next several years.
“We are proud to spearhead the development of this strategic capability together with the Ministry of Defense and the IAF,” the general manager of Elbit Systems ISTAR, Oren Sabag, said in a press statement. “The trials were successful thanks to a range of unique technological assets. We believe 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.” Using lasers to down drones is an innovative approach and Israel’s Rafael has also demonstrated using lasers against drones. In the Middle East, which is where countries like Iran are pioneering new drone threats and the United States is reportedly reducing air defense footprints, the drone threat is a serious challenge.
Elbit and the successful test were praised by Israel’s Defense Minister as well. “I would like to congratulate the Directorate for Defense [research and development], Elbit Systems and the [Israeli Air Force] on the technological breakthrough they have achieved. Today you have brought us closer to yet another important milestone in the development of the multi-tier defense array of the State of Israel and it is significant both in terms of cost-effectiveness and defense capabilities,” Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on June 21. “The laser system will add a new layer of protection at greater ranges and in facing a variety of threats—securing the State of Israel while saving the costs of interception. I am confident that Israel’s defense industry will succeed in this important development program, and I will personally work together with the entire defense establishment to ensure its success.”
The tests conducted used a high-powered 100-kilowatt laser that was. put on a Cessna aircraft. It was tested in several ways. Israel says that “it successfully intercepted and destroyed all of the UAVs that were launched throughout the test. The ability to intercept and destroy airborne threats in the air is groundbreaking and offers a strategic change in the air defense capabilities of the State of Israel.” This game-changing series was conducted in a testing field in the center of Israel, in close cooperation with the Israeli Air force and the “Yanat” unit, Israel’s Ministry of Defense said in a briefing. “Israel is among the first countries in the world to achieve and demonstrate such capabilities employing an airborne, High-Power Laser system. This test series is the first phase in a multi-year program led by the Directorate of Defense [research and development] and Elbit Systems to develop a laser system against a variety of long-range threats,” the Ministry noted.
Lasers can be used alongside Israel’s integrated multi-layered air defense such as Iron Dome and David’s Sling. The United States acquired two Iron Dome batteries last year. The U.S.-Israel cooperation on systems such as David’s Sling, which uses missiles to stop airborne threats, goes back many years.
Israeli officials praised the recent laser test. “The Directorate of Defense [research and development] in the Ministry of Defense, Elbit and the [Israeli Air Force] have completed a series of tests employing a powerful, airborne laser system,” Brig. Gen. Yaniv Rotem, the head of research and development in the DDR&D, said in a press statement. “We successfully intercepted several UAVs in the air, within a range of more than 1km. This is a groundbreaking technological achievement and it is critical for further development of our airborne High-Power Laser System.”
The laser test came as Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi was on a visit to the United States. It also came a day after the announcement that Israel’s UVision would supply the Hero-120 system through its business development partner, Mistral to the U.S. Marine Corps as an Organic Precision Fire Mounted (OPF-M) System. “The Hero-120 OPF-M will provide the Marines Corps with ISR, highly accurate and precision indirect fire strike capabilities. In addition, it will supply its Multi-Canister Launcher tailored to the specific requirements of the USMC,” the company said in a press statement.
The Hero-120 is a mid-range, anti-tank weapon system that UVision says “meets the complex requirements of the modern battlefield. Hero-120 is a high precision smart loitering munition system with a unique aerodynamic structure that carries out pinpoint strikes against anti-armor, anti-material and anti-personnel targets including tanks, vehicles, concrete fortifications, and other soft targets in populated urban areas. The Hero-120’s high precision capability ensures minimal collateral damage.”
Overall it has been a good month for Israel’s Elbit, which also had one of its subsidiaries awarded a $29 million contract to supply the US Army’s pilot with night vision systems and saw Boeing announce that it will integrate anti-jamming systems from Elbit on F-15s for an unnamed country.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen Publishing) and Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future (Forthcoming, Bombardier Books). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.