New Delhi: Rockets, mortars, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — a deadly barrage is launched into the desert sky, only for each one to be intercepted and destroyed. By a laser beam. It’s a scene straight out of a science-fiction epic — with the triumphant orchestral score to match — but, as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said, “it’s real”.

On Thursday, Bennett tweeted a video to declare that Israel had successfully tested its new Iron Beam laser interception air defence system.

Bennett described the Iron Beam — touted as a “game-changer” for Israel’s air defence systems — as “the world’s first energy-based weapons system that uses a laser to shoot down incoming UAVs, rockets & mortars at a cost of $3.50 per shot”.

When it’s inducted into service, the Iron Beam — which has been in the pipeline for more than a decade — is supposed to be integrated into Israel’s multi-pronged air defences, acting as a force multiplier to enhance their efficacy. According to reports, it will complement the existing systems, including the much-hyped Iron Dome, which uses missiles to intercept incoming rockets.

Fast-Tracked Project

Originally, the Iron Beam was supposed to be integrated into Israel’s defences in 2024. However, concerns about the availability of interceptor missiles for the Iron Dome and other systems during periods of conflict made Israel fast-track its development.

To accomplish this, Benny Gantz, Israel’s defence minister, approved significant funding in March 2022. The Jerusalem Post reported that the funding would run into hundreds of millions of shekels. (A shekel is currently about Rs 23.76.)

The programme to fast-track production will be led by the defence ministry’s Directorate of Research and Development, in partnership with the defence conglomerate Rafael Advanced Defence Systems and Elbit Systems, both Israeli firms. Elbit is the supplier of the infrastructure for the laser systems.

While there’s minimal information available regarding its performance, range, and operational standards, it’s expected that the Iron Beam will be deployed on land, sea, and air. The aim is to deploy it all across the borders to offset and deter any aerial threats that the country faces.

The head of research and development at Israel’s defence ministry, Brigadier General (Res.) Yaniv Rotem, told The Times Of Israel that the tests were conducted at “challenging ranges and timings”. The tests were reportedly held at an undisclosed location in Israel’s Negev desert in March 2022.

In praise of the Iron Beam, Rotem said, “The use of a laser is a game-changer, and the technology is simple to operate and proves to be economically viable.”

In Development Since Early 2000s

However, the Iron Beam isn’t an entirely new concept, and neither is the technology behind energy-based weaponry novel or futuristic.

According to defence reports, Israel has been planning for a laser-based air defence system since the early 2000s.

Israel wanted an alternative to the Iron Dome; however, the dome was prioritised as it was realised that laser technology wasn’t a cost-effective instrument at the time.

Rafael began work on a laser-based defence prototype in 2009. In 2014, the company showcased an early version of the Iron Beam at the Singapore Air Show.

At the time, Reuters had reported that Israel planned to deploy the Iron Beam as part of its air defence systems in 2015. Seven years later, it has been tested and seems close to deployment now.

However, certain reports suggest that the Iron Beam has a very limited range, rendering it ineffective against long-range targets. But it’s argued that the beam will be useful for deterring short-range threats and countering saturation strikes.