Lasers: Israel's Rocket Defense?


It was, perhaps, the most successful laser gun in the history of energy weapons. Now, it could just prove to be the key to Israel's defense. Maybe.ACF9C35.jpgIn the early part of this decade, the Israeli and American militaries worked with Northrop Grumman to build the Tactical High Energy Laser, or THEL. During tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the chemical-powered energy weapon blasted out of the sky 28 Katyusha rockets -- just like the ones now assaulting Israel. Another 18 artillery shells and mortars were successfully zapped, as well. No other laser has ever come close to building up that kind of track record. (Here's a video of some of the shoot-downs.)"All my career, I've been interested in fielding lasers," Jeff Sollee, a veteran Northrop laser scientist, told Defense Tech earlier this year. "THEL was as close as they come."But generating the THEL's megawatts of laser power required hundreds of gallons of toxic chemicals ethylene, nitrogen trifluoride. The weapons grew bulky; one proposed small-scale version was supposed to be kept in a mere eight cargo containers, each 40 feet long. A mobile THEL, on just a couple of trucks, proved to be too complex, and too expensive to contemplate. Worse, after a few shots, the lasers would have to be resupplied with a fresh batch of reactants. The logistics of hauling those toxins either through the air or across a battlefield made generals shiver. Israel eventually dropped out of the program. Then America did, too, turning its focus instead to solid-state, electric lasers.Now, Northrop is pushing an upgraded THEL, under the name SkyGuard. The system is being pushed for airport defense, to keep jetliners safe from shoulder-fired missiles (kind of like this microwave-based missile-zapper from Raytheon I reported on last year).But "Northrop executives have pitched [the] laser system in meetings with Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Amir Peretz," the Wall Street Journal reports. "Based on Israel's expression of interest in the laser technology, he said, Northrop has begun the process of applying for an export license."SkyGuard is about a quarter the size of the original THEL, although not much smaller than the eight-container proposal. Northrop claims that the system's exhaust is mostly helium and steam, and requires a "keep out zone" of only 30 meters, Aerospace Daily notes. The price: maybe $200 million, plus $1,000 per shot.Raytheon is also pitching Israel on air defense, too -- but not the microwave system. A few years back, the company began modifying its Phalanx 4,500 round-per-minute gun, originally designed for ship defense, to knock down mortars.The WSJ says that "six batteries currently are deployed in Iraq." And from the reports I've heard, the Phalanxes are performing rather well, with several confirmed kills. Presumably, the systems could be shipped to Israel in fairly short order. The laser-based Skyguard is still very much on the drawing board, however. So Israel would still have to wait quite a while for its speed-of-light defense.(Big ups: BB)UPDATE 7/18/06 11:13 AM: According to a company spokesperson, Northrop thinks it can squeeze Skyguard "into the equivalent of three standard, 20-foot ISO containers" -- much less than the eight contemplated before.

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