Air Defense: Laser Fails the Touch Test


March 24,2008: Despite legal, political and media pressure, Israel has rejected the use of lasers to protect its citizens from Palestinian missiles. This is mainly because of a test of the Skyguard system in the United States (at the White Sands Missile Range), which resulted in only 22 percent of the 36 rockets fired being detected and shot down.

In the last seven years, Palestinian terrorists have fired, from Gaza, some 2,000 homemade "Kassam" rockets, into sparsely populated southern Israel. This has caused about a hundred casualties, including a dozen deaths. Several hundred thousand Israelis are within range of these inaccurate rockets, and they want some protection.

The laser defense system in question has been around for over a decade, and was initially called THEL (Tactical High Energy Laser) [VIDEO]. Israel dropped out of the THEL project because of the expense of developing the system to the point where it would be ready for regular service. The American partner in THEL development is now offering a smaller version of THEL, called Skyguard, for protecting commercial aircraft from portable anti-aircraft missiles. The manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, originally developed THEL for combat situations. Tests two years ago showed THEL was able to knock down barrages of incoming mortar shells.

On paper, THEL (or SkyGuard, or the new name, Nautilus), looks good. The THEL laser and radar system was designed to track up to sixty targets (mortar and artillery shells, rockets) at a time and fire on and destroy these projectiles at a range of up to five kilometers. THEL can destroy about a dozen targets a minute, at a cost of some $3,000 per shot. Each THEL system (radar and laser) could thus cover about ten kilometers of border. The Skyguard version has a range of up to eight kilometers, uses improved software and can more easily link to other radar systems to obtain targeting information. Skyguard is designed mainly for knocking down portable anti-aircraft missiles fired near airports, at aircraft that are landing or taking off.

Last year, Northrop Grumman said that it could have a laser anti-rocket system ready in 18 months, at a development cost of $400 million. Each anti-rocket system would cost about $50 million, and one or two could protect against missiles from Gaza. Thus the total bill for just developing, building and installing the systems is about a billion dollars.

Israel would like the U.S. to help with the costs, for such a system could be useful in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Israel already gets over $2 billion a year in military aid, and the new Skyguard systems could come out of that. The Israeli artillery brass were making the argument that money spent on THEL would provide more benefit that billions spent on new jet fighters.

It took nine years, and over a half a billion dollars, for American and Israeli engineers to get as far as they did (one working prototype system) with THEL. Aside from the systems size and cost, there's also the problem of lasers being weakened by clouds, fog, mist or even artificial smoke. For that reason, there's not a lot of enthusiasm for proceeding right now on such a bulky and expensive system for use against small rockets. But by the end of the decade, a smaller, and cheaper, version will be more attractive, and more likely to be purchased. The Israeli lawsuit is all about getting THEL/SkyGuard/Natilus in service ASAP, no matter what.

The reality is that THEL is a bulky system, and not really mobile. Each system requires half a dozen or more large tractor trailer trucks to carry the radar, fuel supplies and laser. A proposed new version, the MTHEL (Mobile Tactical High-Energy Laser) was designed (using three tractor-trailers) and tested. Engineers believe that MTHEL could be ready for battlefield use in about six years, at a cost of another billion dollars. In another few years, engineers believe they could create a MTHEL that could fit in a hummer.

But the development costs of THEL and MTHEL were so high, that both the American and Israeli governments pulled their support two years ago. The manufacturer put some of their own money into the project and came up with Skyguard. The pitch is that Skyguard would be cheaper than equipping thousands of aircraft with individual anti-missile systems. But first, THEL has to prove that it is reliable enough to stay on-line 24/7 (or nearly so), and act effectively if there is ever an attack. No one has yet tried using these missiles in the United States, but it has happened elsewhere, especially in Africa. There is not enough fear of such attacks in the U.S. to get SkyGuard funded, and purchased.

The first Skyguard system would cost about $150 million, with subsequent ones costing about 70 percent less. Skyguard will also be able to handle rockets, artillery projectiles, mortars, unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles. In other words, if you had a billion dollars to spare, you might be able to get a Skyguard system to defend Israel from rockets fired from Lebanon or Gaza. Maybe. THEL is another example of technology that got out of the lab before it was ready to survive in the wild. What the Northrop engineers are saying is, "give us another billion bucks and a few years, and we'll have it working effectively." That is a pitch heard all too often in the Pentagon, and more often than not, the outcome is not good. Laser anti-aircraft systems are one of those weapons that can accurately be described as "the weapon of the future, and always will be."




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