Iron Beam – Analyzing Israel’s Next Anti-Missile System
The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and about 1,000 American soldiers are holding a biennial exercise to test joint their abilities to respond to missile attacks. The exercise, termed Juniper Cobra, will include simulations of various threats to Israel’s home front, including various missile attacks.
The American troops, who belong to the United States European Command, are designated to reinforce Israel’s anti-ballistic defense systems in case of an attack. The US force also includes two American ships in the Mediterranean equipped with the Aegis Combat System, which can intercept missiles.
With the addition of the Aegis equipped American naval vessels, Israel is undoubtedly the most thoroughly protected nation against missiles. Israel also has the US made Patriot missile. In addition, it also has fielded several other antiballistic missile systems including Arrow 2, Arrow 3, and the Iron Dome. It will also soon field David’s Sling, which will be able to intercept every missile threat that the Patriot is capable of and overlap some of the capabilities of the Arrow and Iron Dome systems.
However, a few months ago at the Singapore Air Show, Israel announced the fielding of a new anti-missile system, Iron Beam – a laser device. Iron Beam is designed to intercept close-range drones, rockets and mortars which might not remain in the air long enough for Israel’s Iron Dome system to intercept. It is being built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. During the Singapore show, Rafael officials said test data show Iron Beam lasers are destroying more than 90 percent of their targets. One advantage of the laser is that the cost to destroy an incoming missile with a laser is considerably less than the cost to destroy that same missile with an interceptor missile.
But, is it as effective as claimed?
The reality is that there is a big difference between the laser weapons of science fiction movies and the actual fielding of a laser weapon on the modern battlefield. That’s why the US, which has spent more on laser weapons development than any other country, has only one prototype placed on a Navy ship – a prototype that is considerably less effective than what Israel claims the Iron Beam can do.
So, has Israel made a major technological breakthrough in laser weapons? Or have they developed a laser system that has major flaws?
If one looks carefully, one can see the flaws in Iron Beam.
High energy lasers have held a lot of promise as defensive weapons, but have several problems that have prevented them from being little more than prototypes. Early crystal rod lasers and gas discharge tube lasers were very inefficient and most of the energy was wasted as heat. Therefore, a high energy laser would create so much waste heat as to damage the equipment.
The chemical laser changed that. Chemical lasers are more like rocket engines than the common laser. A laser propellant, comprising a suitable mix of chemicals, is burned or reacts in some way and the chemical exhaust is then directed into an expansion nozzle. The exhaust stream from the expansion nozzle contains highly energetic molecules, which due to the choice of propellants and added agents have effectively been pumped to a state where laser action can occur. If a pair of aligned mirrors is placed to either side of the exhaust stream, laser action will occur as photons bounce between the mirrors, and power can be extracted if one of the mirrors is optically leaky.
While that sounds simple, the technology is much more complex. The chemicals react at temperatures as high as 1000 to 2000 deg C, depending on the laser fuel mix used. The expansion nozzles require very precisely controlled flow conditions to work, which results in a complex exhaust system designed to produce the required pressure and flow rates. Some laser fuels and their exhaust can be highly corrosive and toxic. Mirrors must have very low optical losses, since even a 1 percent loss in a 1 Megawatt laser sees 10 kilowatts of waste heat dumped into the mirrors.
It is this complex chemical laser system that is at the heart of the Iron Beam. However, instead of being a single laser, it actually uses batteries of smaller lasers and a mirror to produce the final high power output beam.
The Israelis have been quite cagey about the specifics of the Iron Beam laser and have tried to intimate that it is a solid state laser. However, unless they have made a dramatic leap forward in solid state laser design that hasn’t been replicated by other nations, that is probably false information designed to mislead other nations.
The principal problems with solid state laser technology are cost, scalability and power handling capability. As with the older lasers, at best they only turn 10% of their energy into laser power, leaving the other 90% as waste heat that can damage the solid state laser diodes. The American solid state laser that is being deployed on a ship this summer is estimated to have a power of only 15 – 50 kilowatts (the actual figure is classified). And, it is only effective against approaching small aircraft or high-speed boats.
Harder targets, like that the Iron Beam is designed to stop, require much more power. 100 kilowatts, is enough power to destroy soft targets like small boats and drones. To shoot down a hard target like a cruise or ballistic missile, megawatts of power would be needed. Solid state lasers aren’t close to doing that
This leaves us with the chemical laser solution, which has the megawatts of power to shoot down hard targets.
Although very little has been released about Iron Beam, Rafael’s research into laser weapons has been well documented. The Iron Beam appears to be a derivative of the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) that was developed by the US and Israel.
The design aim of the THEL system was to provide a point defense weapon which was capable of engaging and destroying short range rockets like Katyushas, artillery shells, mortar rounds and low flying aircraft – the same goal of the Iron Beam system. Although details are classified, it was a megawatt power laser.
The THEL demonstrator was tested between 2000 and 2004, and destroyed 28, 122 mm and 160 mm Katyusha rockets, multiple artillery shells, and mortar rounds, including a salvo attack by mortar.
The demonstrator THEL system was built around a deuterium fluoride chemical laser operating at a wavelength of 3.6 to 4.2 micrometers (Mid-Wavelength Infrared, also called thermal infrared). The weapons system burns ethylene in Nitrogen Trifluoride gas, which is then mixed with deuterium and helium, to produce the excited deuterium fluoride lasing medium. This gas is then fed into expansion nozzles similar to that of other chemical lasers.
The THEL prototype tested by Israel and the United States
Since the exhaust of this laser is hazardous to humans, a complex exhaust system must be used to absorb and neutralize the highly corrosive and toxic deuterium fluoride exhaust gas. However, the exhaust gasses contain much of the waste heat that made weapons grade lasers so difficult in the past.
The original demonstrator system was too large and took up three semitrailers. However, Rafael has miniaturized Iron Beam enough to be relatively mobile.
But, size hasn’t been the only problem with fielding lasers as weapons. In fact, it was these problems that caused the US to drop the program and stop funding it, although Israel continued to develop it. And, it appears that many of these problems still plague the Iron Beam.
One of those problems is “blooming,” the phenomena caused by the high energy laser interacting with the atmosphere. This causes the laser to spread out and disperse energy into the surrounding air. The best way to counteract this is with a very short burst of laser energy that destroys the target before the blooming starts. However, these shorter bursts limit the damage that the laser can do to a larger target.
The laser beam can also be absorbed, either by dust, water vapor, clouds, fog, snow, or rain. Although the 3.6 – 4.2 micrometer wavelength of the laser is able to travel well through the dry atmosphere, humidity of any kind seriously attenuates the beam. Carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons also seriously degrade the beam at this wavelength. This makes it more effective in the drier, less populated parts of Israel, but significantly less effective in the humid, populated corridors along the seacoast.
Since water vapor limits the range, Iron Beam is only effective as a terminal defense system, protecting a small area around the missile site. If, as has been claimed, Iron Beam is designed to stop missile and mortar attacks from Palestinian areas like Gaza, this failure to operate effectively in humidity makes it appear to less effective than claimed by Rafael.
The final problem is the high cost per shot. The Iron Beam laser is similar to the hydrogen fluoride lasers that operate at 2.7-2.9 micrometers. This wavelength, however, is absorbed by the atmosphere, effectively attenuating the beam and reducing its reach, unless used in the vacuum of space.
Rafael solved the problem by opting for a more exotic, very scarce, and expensive fuel. When the rare hydrogen isotope deuterium is used instead of hydrogen, the deuterium fluoride lases at the 3.6 – 4.2 micrometer wavelength. This makes the deuterium fluoride laser usable as a close in anti-missile system. The fuel, however, is very expensive (deuterium only accounting for 0.0156% of all hydrogen on the earth), which means each shot can cost thousands of dollars. A paper written by a member of the US Air Force Weapons Laboratory in 1980 said the cost of the laser fuel (used industrially) would be $1,000 per megawatt per second. The THEL was estimated to cost $3,000 per shot.
No wonder the cost of the fuel and the problem of supplying and storing unusual chemical compounds of fluorine, and deuterium led the US to push for electrically pumped lasers instead of chemical lasers.
In the end, the effectiveness of the Israeli Iron Beam remains questionable. It is capable of intercepting and destroying incoming missiles and artillery rounds. However, it uses a technology that was cast aside by the Americans as being too expensive, logistically difficult to support, requiring highly toxic chemicals, and limited by range and humidity.
In the end, the Iron Beam may be so costly that it should be named the platinum beam.
Measuring Military Capabilities: An Essential Tool for Rebuilding American Military Strength
By Richard J. Dunn, III
May 16, 2014
In the fall of 1945, much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins. The Soviet hammer and sickle flew over the German Reichstag and most of Eastern Europe, and Mao’s red star rose higher over a China devastated by almost a decade of war and Japanese occupation. The world had paid an extraordinarily high price in blood and treasure to defeat Nazi and Japanese aggression. Moreover, the war unleashed the political, economic, and social instability that contributed enormously to the rise of totalitarian, hostile, and expansionist Communist regimes, which required more decades of Cold War vigilance and hot war sacrifice in Korea and Vietnam to restrain.
Middle East Notes and Comment: A Partnership for Egypt
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
May 21, 2014
The night Hosni Mubarak fell from power, Egyptians of all shades, sizes, and beliefs came together to celebrate the end of a fading dictatorship and the beginning of a bright new future. Amidst singing and fireworks, flag-wrapped Egyptians wept with joy. As Egypt faces presidential elections this weekend, the future looks less bright and less new than any would have predicted three years ago. The military is clearly back, the economy is in shambles, and political space is constricting. On a recent trip to Egypt, I met old friends who were triumphant that the Islamists had been set back. Yet I also saw palpable despair, not only among Islamists, but among liberals too. “I need to take stock this summer and decide if I have a future here,” said a friend, who had served in an interim government. “I just need a break from Egypt,” one political activist told me, gaunt-faced and weary.
Post-Election Transition in Afghanistan
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
May 19, 2014
Ever since Vietnam, the US has faced three major threats every time it has attempted a major counterinsurgency campaign in armed nation building: The actual hostile forces, both in terms of native insurgent elements and outside support from other states and non-state actors. Existing challenges in host country, including corruption, internal tensions, weak governance, and uncertain economics, that make it as much of a threat in practical terms as the armed opposition. The failures within the US government to deal honestly and effectively with both the military and civil dimensions of the war, including attempts to transform states in the middle of conflict rather than set realistic goals; levels of costs and casualties that make sustaining the US effort difficult or impossible; and a failure to sustain the effort necessary to achieve a lasting impact.
Syrian rebels don’t love Israel! OMG!
By Danielle Pletka
American Enterprise Institute
May 19, 2014
My friends over at the Free Beacon have just posted an article revealing that the Syrian rebels armed by the United States seek “the return of all Syrian land occupied by Israel,” going on to explain that this “stance that could potentially complicate US military support to the armed rebel group.” Um, guys, what? What exactly should the rebels say? Perhaps that the Golan Heights should stay with Israel? Sure! Why not! Or what they believe the “vetting” by US interlocutors ought to be: “How do you feel about the Jews?” This is unserious for a whole lot of reasons.
US Media Outreach to the Arab World: Reaching a Larger Audience More Effectively and for Less Money
By Joseph Braunde
Foreign Policy Research Institute
America’s considerable spending on Arabic-language media ventures goes primarily to one pan-regional television network and one pan-regional radio network, both based on a model envisioned in the months following September 11 that is far less relevant to the region today: At the time, pan-regional TV networks like Al-Jazeera dominated the public discussion. Today, they have lost considerable market share to national television networks with a greater focus on domestic debates in their respective countries. The ongoing American attempt to address the entire region all at once, from Casablanca to Baghdad, is less likely to succeed than in the past. Political discourse in the early years following September 11 was largely caught up in perceived struggles between dark and light: America vs. the Muslim world; Israelis vs Palestinians. While these themes remain prominent, they occupy far less airtime than in the past. The greater concern which dominates Arab public discussions, in this ongoing period of upheaval and change, is the internal dynamics of Arab societies and debates over the future direction of each country. As such, what was once a prime directive for America’s Arabic broadcasts — to improve perceptions of the United States among Arab publics — is less urgent than in the past.
Fallout in Lebanon: The Impact of Yabroud
By Geoffrey Daniels
Institute for the Study of War
May 16, 2014
The Syrian regime’s decisive victory over rebel forces in the Qalamoun stronghold of Yabroud, bolstered by support from Lebanese Hezbollah and Syrian National Defense Forces, has significant implications in the overall context of the three-year conflict. Yet also worth a careful examination is the impact of the fall of Yabroud on Syria’s fragile neighbor, Lebanon, whose own security situation remains fragile as the conflict continues to spill across the border. The ripple effects from Yabroud test the resilience of Lebanon, a country less than one decade removed from a 29-year Syrian military occupation, by flooding the border regions of Arsal and Wadi Khaled with militants, weapons, explosives, and refugees while threatening tenuous sectarian divisions.
Iraq’s Election Results: Avoiding a Kurdish Split
By Michael Knights
May 21, 2014
The votes are in, but Baghdad will need to resuscitate the revenue-sharing deal with the Kurds in order to steady the already-troubled government formation process. On May 19, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) released the results of Iraq’s April 30 national elections, and Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki scored strongly on two fronts. First, his State of Law Alliance held its ground, winning 92 seats in the new 328-seat parliament compared to 89 in the previous 325-seat assembly. Second, he surpassed his personal vote count of 622,000 in 2010 by collecting 727,000 votes this time. Although rival Shiite parties and Kurdish and Sunni Arab oppositionists collectively won around 160 seats — just shy of the 165 required to ratify a prime minister — opponents of a third Maliki term would have to set aside their differences and demonstrate near-perfect cohesion to unseat him. Maliki is therefore the front runner for now, though his victory is not a foregone conclusion by any means.
Libya’s Growing Risk of Civil War
By Andrew Engel
May 20, 2014
Long-simmering tensions between non-Islamist and Islamist forces have boiled over into military actions centered around Benghazi and Tripoli, entrenching the country’s rival alliances and bringing them ever closer to civil war. On May 16, former Libyan army general Khalifa Haftar launched “Operation Dignity of Libya” in Benghazi, aiming to “cleanse the city of terrorists.” The move came three months after he announced the overthrow of the government but failed to act on his proclamation. Since Friday, however, army units loyal to Haftar have actively defied armed forces chief of staff Maj. Gen. Salem al-Obeidi, who called the operation “a coup.” And on Monday, sympathetic forces based in Zintan extended the operation to Tripoli. These and other developments are edging the country closer to civil war, complicating U.S. efforts to stabilize post-Qadhafi Libya.
Between Not-In and All-In: U.S. Military Options in Syria
By Chandler P. Atwood, Joshua C. Burgess, Michael Eisenstadt, and Joseph D. Wawro
Policy Notes 18
The Syrian war has left more than 150,000 dead and more than 9 million displaced. With diplomacy and sanctions having failed to achieve their objectives, the Obama administration is reportedly considering a more proactive role in the conflict. The impulse to refrain from military intervention remains understandable, but the costs of nonintervention may be even steeper: an al-Qaeda foothold and expanded Iranian influence in the Levant, a new generation of jihadists poised to migrate to other conflicts, social tensions and political instability in neighboring states, and growing doubts about U.S. credibility. Nor does military intervention necessarily imply boots on the ground.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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