There are a few examples of advances in military technology that have changed the course of history. Among them were the machine gun (1884), the aircraft (1903) and the atomic bomb (1945), but no others were as significant. Today, technological advances are usually not of historic significance but many can and often do change the balances of power regionally or globally.
For about a decade, Israel’s famous “Iron Dome” anti-missile system (later combined with its longer-range companion, “David’s Sling”) has been protecting Israel from rocket, missile and artillery attacks.
Each battery of Iron Dome’s system is comprised of radars and four launchers each of which can fire twenty “Tamir” missiles.
The two systems are reportedly at least 90% effective against those threats. Due to those systems’ effectiveness, Israelis are more secure. The threats from Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorist network (a tool of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps) and the Palestinians, who also frequently launch mortar or artillery rounds or Katyusha rockets (which are little more than self-propelled pipe bombs) are lessened.
Iran, with its medium-range ballistic missiles and its current arrival at the point it can produce nuclear weapons, is still the biggest threat Israel faces.
The obvious problem with any anti-missile system is that it can be overwhelmed by a big enough barrage. Hezbollah reportedly has between 40,000 and 150,000 rockets and missiles that can strike Israel. They range from the short-range “Katyusha” rockets to the Scud B and C short-range ballistic missiles.
Hezbollah frequently launched several of its simplest rockets against Israel but hasn’t launched a major rocket or missile attack against Israel since 2018. The more rockets and missiles launched, the greater their capacity to overwhelm the limited number of defensive missiles that can be fired to intercept them.
The not-so-obvious problem with Iron Dome is that each Tamir missile costs about $50,000. The cost of a typical intercept is $100,000 or $150,000. Israel is a relatively wealthy nation, but those costs are not sustainable because of other demands — social welfare programs among them — on its budget.
What may be a solution to both problems has now been unveiled. Israel’s cheap shot — from its new “Iron Beam” laser system — will cost about $2 for each interception. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced the development of the system in early June. It is expected to be deployed next year.
Iron Beam, the first deployable directed-energy weapon, is a major advance in defensive technology that could deter Israel’s enemies, such as Iran and the Palestinians, coupled with Israel’s other systems.
The United States has been trying to develop laser-based anti-missile systems for decades. The YAL-1, a huge chemical laser carried by a Boeing 747, was tested successfully against tactical ballistic missiles but the program was canceled a decade ago. The Navy has successfully tested a ship-borne totally electrical laser against a drone. It reportedly can kill incoming missiles as well. The Air Force and Army both continue to develop directed-energy weapons.
The biggest problem with laser-based weapons is their power requirements and recycling time between firings. The public is used to the “Star Wars” kind of beam weapons which, in fiction, recycle instantly. The YAL-1 and Navy lasers’ recycling times are classified, but they are probably measured by minutes, not seconds. If the Iron Beam system can recycle much faster, it will give the Israelis a tremendous advantage against drone, mortar, artillery and rocket attacks.
The real question is to what extent Iron Beam will affect the balances of power between Israel and the terrorist networks and Iran. It is probably not the game-changer Mr. Bennett claimed it was but it could provide — if enough are produced and deployed — a significant edge in a future conflict.
If that conflict is an open war with Iran, Israel could — despite Iron Dome, Iron Beam and David’s Sling — still be destroyed by Iranian nuclear weapons.
Mr. Bennett also told the Economist that Israel is seeking to outspend Iran on its weapons programs and outmatch it in technology. Iron Beam is an example of that technological overmatch. But with the other demands on its budget, it’s far from clear how Israel can reach a decisive advantage in technology.
Iran’s regime, in its first decades of power, calibrated its actions carefully to avoid a U.S. military response. It no longer does so. It could have accepted President Biden’s obsequious offers of a new version of former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal but although it still desires a new deal Iran wants more from Mr. Biden.
Mr. Bennett, in his Economist interview, said, “We are implementing the ‘Octopus Doctrine.’ We no longer play with the tentacles, with Iran’s proxies, we’ve created a new equation by going for the head.”
Mr. Bennett’s threat against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s other leaders will make them fearful for some time. Combined with Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Iron Beam, they may yet deter Iran at least until it produces nuclear weapons. At that point, Iran will never again be susceptible of deterrence.
• Jed Babbin is a national security and foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Times and contributing editor for The American Spectator.
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