Israel is offering for sale a laser weapon that can shoot down artillery and mortar shells as well as rockets and small UAVs. Called Iron Beam it has a range of 2,000 meters and is expected to enter service in Israel by the end of 2015. There is a lot of action on Israeli borders for a system like Iron Beam and it will soon become evident if Iron Beam is the first effective laser air defense weapon or not.
Each Iron Beam firing unit consists of a radar and control system and two lasers. These three elements can be stationary or mounted (and used) in trucks. This is the first C-RAM (counter-rockets, artillery and mortars) system using lasers to be offered for sale. There have been several attempts to develop systems like this since the 1990s but this one is the first to actually hit the market.
The first non-laser system similar to Iron Beam was developed by the United States in 2006. This was a C-RAM version of the Phalanx ship-mounted missile defense system. The C-RAM Phalanx was intended to protect large bases in Iraq and Afghanistan from mortar and rocket attack. The original Phalanx was a 20mm cannon designed to defend American warships against anti-ship missiles. Phalanx does this by using a radar that immediately starts firing at any incoming missile it detects. The C-RAM Phalanx system has its software modified to detect smaller objects (like 82mm mortar shells). This capability came about when it was discovered that the original Phalanx could take out incoming 155mm artillery shells. This capability is what led to the 2006 C-RAM Phalanx.
The first C-RAM was sent to Iraq in late 2006 to protect the Green Zone (the large area in Baghdad turned into an American base). It was found that C-RAM could knock down 70-80 percent of the rockets and mortar shells fired within range of its cannon. It took about a year to develop C-RAM, and another version, using a high-powered laser, instead of the 20mm gun, was soon in development. The laser powered version is still in development.
Other modifications included linking Phalanx to the Lightweight Counter Mortar Radar and Q-36 Target Acquisition Radar. When these radars detect incoming fire, C-RAM Phalanx points toward the incoming objects and prepares to fire at anything that comes within range (about 2,000 meters) of its 20mm cannon. Phalanx uses high explosive 20mm shells that detonate near the target spraying it with fragments. By the time these fragments reach the ground, they are generally too small to injure anyone. The original Phalanx used 20mm depleted uranium shells, to slice through incoming missiles. Phalanx fires shells at the rate of 75 per second. Another advantage of C-RAM Phalanx, is that it makes a distinctive noise when firing, warning people nearby that a mortar or rocket attack is underway, giving people an opportunity to duck inside if they are out and about.
Iron Beam eliminates the risk of shells not going off in the air and falling to ground or the small chance of anyone (especially children) being hit by the small fragments and injured. Perhaps the best thing Iron Beam has going for it is the impressive track record of Israel in developing anti-aircraft weapons. The Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system has been heavily used since 2011 and Israeli work on its Arrow anti-ballistic missile system is considered world-class.