Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has repeatedly hailed Israel’s upcoming Iron Beam laser defense system as a military and economic game-changer.
“Rafael’s laser system is a strategic game-changer for the State of Israel and the world as well, a system that already today knows how to shoot down mortar rounds, UAVs and rockets,” Bennett said during his visit to a Rafael facility on May 31. “This is a game-changer because we can not only strike the enemy militarily but also weaken it economically.”
“Until today it would cost us a lot of money to intercept every rocket,” he added. “Today they can invest tens of thousands of dollars in a rocket and we can invest two dollars to cover the cost of the electricity in shooting down the rocket.”
Bennett has repeatedly highlighted the cost-efficiency of the Iron Beam in recent months, which makes a lot of sense. After all, for the better part of a decade now, Israel has relied heavily on its famous Iron Dome missile defense system for shooting down the hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas from the Gaza Strip. Short-range Hamas rockets often only cost a few thousand dollars to produce, while each Tamir interceptor missile fired by the Iron Dome – and Israel often fired two Tamirs against each incoming rocket – costs at least $50,000.
Aside from weakening its enemies economically, Bennett believes the addition of the Iron Beam to Israel’s high-tech air defenses will also strengthen Israel’s economy since it will hugely reduce the cost of countering rocket and drone threats, explained a senior Israeli official.
The official pointed out that it’s the first successfully-tested system of its kind in the world. And when asked, affirmed that the incumbent Israeli government considers the Iron Beam “revolutionary”.
The system is most effective against short-range threats such as rockets, mortars, drones, and anti-tank missiles. It can engage such threats from up to 2,000 meters away. The first variant of the system is ground-based. And the official also disclosed that there will also be air and even space-based Iron Beam systems in the future.
But is the system really a game-changer or revolutionary?
“Although there are other laser-based defense systems already deployed, there aren’t any that claim to act like Iron Beam to cheaply destroy small targets like rockets,” said Ryan Bohl, Stratfor’s Middle East and North Africa analyst at RANE. “That puts Iron Beam into its own category in terms of mission type.”
Bohl anticipates that the Iron Beam has the potential to make it cheaper for Israel to deflect rocket and drone attacks “so long as the system performs as well in a real combat situation as it does in testing.”
“There’s also a question of the logistics of supporting the system and the price of the supply chain — the $2 a shot may be a headline phrase that in practice doesn’t quite pan out,” he said. “There’s also a question as to whether or not Hamas or other militants might find their own ways to cut costs to keep pace with the economics of Israel’s defensive systems.”
“But the biggest challenge is that the system will take years to deploy at scale, and so, in the near term, Israel will still need to rely on the expensive Iron Dome system.”
In February, Bennett said the Iron Beam would eventually form a “laser wall” around Israel to shield the country from numerous threats.
Since the last time Israel and Hezbollah fought a war against each other in 2006, the Lebanese group has amassed over 100,000 rockets and missiles, many of them precision-guided and capable of striking anywhere in Israel. In the event of another war, analysts anticipate the group might try to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome and other missile defense systems through sheer force of numbers. Hamas seemingly tried this already, albeit on a much smaller scale than a Hezbollah barrage would most likely be, during the last Gaza war in May 2021.
It’s unclear if the Iron Beam could fully counter such an enormous barrage after it is deployed in significant numbers. Similarly, it’s unclear if the system could prove effective against the evolving threat posed by drone swarms.
“Right now, it remains theoretical as to how well Iron Beam would perform under such swarm attacks; other systems have touted their ability to block such attacks and failed to completely block them,” Bohl said.
“It remains likely that cheap rockets and missiles will, with enough scale, be able to penetrate even the most advanced systems at least some of the time,” he added. “Drones are also an unknown quantity; over time, they may develop more advanced navigation systems that could avoid these kinds of batteries at least some of the time.”
There is also the question of what the introduction of Iron Beam could mean for Israel’s traditional missile defense systems in the long-term.
“In the near term, it’s likely that they’ll complement these systems as Iron Beam is rolled out and tested in battlefield conditions,” Bohl said.
“If Iron Beam works as well on the ground as it does on paper, it will increasingly replace Iron Dome, which might make Iron Dome a system more likely to be exported by Israel given it would then have a reduced role in the Israeli Defense Forces.”