The stakes in 21st century warfare are rising rapidly.
Israel’s Defense Ministry has partnered with a subcontractor called Elbit Systems Ltd to develop the world’s first airborne laser weapon capable of firing drones from the sky, in addition to other flying targets, officials said in a statement Monday, in an initial report by Reuters.
And, after a successful test, officials also say the prototype could be ready in 2025.
100kW airborne laser prototype shoots down drone in Israel
The laser system has yet to be named, but it could be part of Israel’s multi-tiered air defense network, which includes the Iron Dome system, designed to eliminate rockets at close range. The new laser weapon could also be incorporated into the David’s Sling and Arrow systems, used to repel ballistic missiles. The first tests of the laser took place while it was flying on light aircraft and were successful in bringing down many drones at distances of around half a mile (1 km), according to a statement by Brigadier-General Yaniv Rotem of the section of the Israeli Ministry of Research and Development. “As far as we know, we are the first (country) – but maybe, for sure, we are among the first countries – who have tried and succeeded (at) such … interception,” he said. he declared in the Reuters report.
The company, Elbit, also makes C-Music, an airborne defense system designed to “blind” incoming missiles before they can strike planes, a senior official named Oren Sabag said. The new laser weapon will use tracking methods, much like those of C-Music, and destroy targets via a rapid heating process, to set airborne targets on fire in “seconds,” according to the report.
Rotem added that a 100 kW prototype with a range of 12.5 miles (20 km) could be deployed in three to four years, which could mean that a fully operational model could take even longer to come out. Israel’s Defense Ministry, in addition to Elbit, and state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd are also collaborating on the development of a ground-based laser weapon capable of eliminating air targets. These would have a range of five to six miles (8 to 10 km) and would be deployed during or before 2025, according to the Israeli ministry.
The US Air Force is building its own laser defense system
Obviously, the airborne laser system will have the distinct advantage of providing tactical support above the clouds, making it weather independent. Since inclement weather can reduce the effectiveness of lasers on the ground, this is a major benefit, which is why the US military is also developing an airborne laser defense system. In February of this year, the US Air Force announced that it would receive the first delivery of major components for a prototype tactical laser weapon that month. Notably, the weapon was to be mounted on fighter jets, with final components expected to arrive in July.
Of course, this is not the first airborne laser weapon capable of eliminating airborne targets. In the early 1980s, a Boeing NKC-135A was equipped with a modified laser, and from 2002 to 2014, the Boeing YAL-1 was also equipped with an advanced airborne laser (ABL) system. They used infrared detection to identify incoming missiles or other threats. None of the Boeing planes were designed to shoot down drones, which is the hallmark of Israel’s new airborne laser system.
It was the latest initiative of the Air Force’s Laboratory Self Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program, which has worked to bring these ancient sci-fi weapons to life since its launch in 2015. With a military relationship long standing with the US military, it’s no surprise that Israel was the first, or at least among the first, to successfully test one of the most advanced weapons ever created.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article failed to mention other airborne laser systems used by the US Air Force. While these did not shoot down drones, a paragraph was added to briefly summarize the two planes.