It is evident by now that the traditional Western superiority in conventional military forces is all but neutralized in the face of the strategic challenge posed by terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas armed with short-range rockets. U.S. forces in Iraq continue to be challenged by insurgents firing light mortars. Israel’s two options for defeating Hezbollah’s rocket barrages are air power, which is proving ineffective, and a large-scale ground offensive, which is believed to be too costly in terms of casualties.
The answer has been sitting on the shelf for years now. It is a laser beam. More than ten years ago, U.S. engineers and scientists demonstrated that it was possible to shoot down short-range rockets with a laser beam. This technology was considered so promising that the United States Army and the Israeli Ministry of Defense pursued a joint program to develop the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL). In a series of tests, the THEL successfully shot down forty-six artillery shells, mortar rounds and short-range rockets including Katyushas.
Despite successfully demonstrating that a laser defense is possible and that a deployable system could be built, the two countries essentially gave up on the idea. Both the U.S. and Israeli governments thought that the more serious threat would come from longer-range ballistic missiles such as those Iraq once launched or the ones being deployed by North Korea and Iran. This is another example of planning to fight the last war.
The need for a defense against short-range rockets is now apparent. Fortunately, a relatively near-term solution exists. Based on the THEL program, the new and more capable Skyguard tactical laser offers the promise of a highly effective defense against the rockets and mortars being employed against Israeli civilians and U.S. forces in Iraq. In addition, the same Skyguard system could be employed near any airport to protect airliners from the threat of man portable air defense missiles (SAMs). A single Skyguard system could defend the entire Green Zone in Baghdad. Five could provide protection for all of northern Israel.
Continuing on the current path of employing massive conventional firepower against a foe that shields itself behind women and children is a self-defeating strategy. The West needs its own asymmetric approach to the threat of terrorist rockets. It needs to deploy advanced defenses against rockets and missiles of all ranges.
A few hundred million dollars is all that is needed to turn Skyguard into a deployed capability. For an additional $1 billion northern Israel could be protected. In view of the destruction being suffered on both sides, this seems like a small investment that would produce major results.
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