The challenge of Directed-Energy Weapons for Air Defense

Category Technology

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The U.S. Army is working to develop directed-energy weapons for air defense, such as Iron Beam Combat Laser. This contract is worth about $221 million for development alone and acquiring this new technology could reduce risk to the military. The laser interception system can destroy targets at short range and relatively cheap cost, though certain weather conditions can reduce its effectiveness and the laser beam generation process is slower than other weapons.

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The U.S. Army is working through a variety of challenges with directed-energy weapons for air defense, including how to affordably manufacture the high-tech capability and sustain it on the battlefield. This contract is worth about $221 million for development alone. A 2019 report by New Mexico’s Galaxy Advanced Engineering suggests that a megawatt range combat laser (1,000 kW) would be needed toi short down an airplane .

Iron Beam, the laser interception system developed for the Iron Dome, involves emitting high-powered laser beams capable of intercepting small objects like rockets, missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles or jets

This would out about 5000 joules per square centimeter. Less powerful lasers, however, might be able to disable specific thin-skinned targets such as an airplane’s sensors, optics, and related devices. This phase of HELSI aims to increase the laser’s power level while achieving excellent beam quality and optimizing efficiency, size, weight, and volume for the continuous-wave high energy laser sources .

Primary goal of the High Energy Laser Systems Integration (HELSI) effort is to develop technologies that will enable laser weapons delivery systems to be used in the battle space

Proving this capability will reduce risk for the Department of Defense acquisition and fielding of high-powered laser weapon systems for all six military branches. Iron Beam Combat Laser Terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip can launch rockets for less than US$1,000. The Tamir interceptor used for Iron Dome is said to cost about US$50,000, and a Patriot missile goes up to US$3 million per piece. The cost of one interception with Iron Beam laser would be much cheaper, with some reports suggesting US$2,000 .

By using laser technology, a megawatt range combat laser (1,000 kW) with about 5000 joules per square centimeter is needed to shoot down an airplane

Limits of Combat Lasers Iron Beam still faces a series of technological issues that constrain its operational relevance. Weather conditions significantly affect its ability to operate. The sensors of Iron Beam are said to work effectively in optimal conditions such as a sunny and cloudless day, but less so in cases of rain and clouds. This questions the choice of relying on a system that could be made suddenly – and quite randomly – inefficient .

The cost of using Iron Beam Combat Laser to intercept a rocket is around $2,000, which is much cheaper than the Tamir interceptor ($50,000) and Patriot missile ($3 million)

Israel has a Mediterranean climate. Weather problems would mostly be an issue during the winter season. Southeast Asian countries have ten times more rain which would reduce combat laser use and effectiveness. The range of the interception is also limited as laser energy is absorbed by molecules and aerosols in the atmosphere and eventually loses power. This means that the system, as of today, could only destroy rockets at short range (reportedly less than 10 km) .

Laser energy may be absorbed by molecules and aerosols in the atmosphere which limits the range of interception to less than 10 km

Additionally, the process of generating a laser beam may take only a few seconds, which makes the system slower than Iron Dome and less effective when facing a salvo of rockets. Overall, the potential effects that the directed-energy weapons could have on air defense cannot be understated, though overcoming technical difficulties currently stands as a major challenge.

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