Defense experts and military historians like to talk about the interaction of offensive and defensive technologies and the impact of this dynamic on warfare. Improvements in offensive capabilities engenders a search for better defensive systems as does the opposite. As swords, spears and arrows improved, becoming deadlier, armorers sought enhanced defensive technologies, moving from leather to chain mail to plate armor. The invention of gunpowder weapons led to wholesale changes in defensive capabilities from the way forts were constructed to the introduction of heavily armored warships. Each time the armor was added to a warship, the caliber of naval guns was increased in order to achieve penetration. Firearms also ended the utility of body armor for more than a century until advances in material science allowed the creation of ceramic plates. The advent of aerial bombardment led to development of radar, anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles along with airborne interceptors. The offensive-defensive interaction has been going on since Man first used tools.
An important current example of the struggle of offense against defense is that between ballistic missiles and missile defenses. Because ballistic missiles pose extremely high speed and relatively short flight times they have proven difficult to defeat except with another missile. The ability to hit a bullet with a bullet was, until relatively recently, difficult to achieve. Several decades of investments, beginning in 1983 with Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, has significantly improved the ability of defensive systems to track and intercept ballistic missiles and rockets. The U.S. Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System using several versions of the Standard Missile has successfully intercepted ballistic missile targets in 28 out of 34 tests. Some reports claim that in 2012 the Israel Iron Dome system, designed to engage short-range rockets, achieved a 90 percent success rate against rockets that had a flight time of just a few minutes.
The introduction of missile defenses did not mean that ballistic missiles and rockets were rendered impotent. Offensive responses to initial missile defenses ranged from simply increasing the number of missiles fired so as to overwhelm the defense to very sophisticated maneuvering warheads and decoys. Missile defense designers, in turn, focused on engaging ballistic missiles earlier in their trajectory and layering the defense, thereby allowing multiple “shots” at each incoming missile or warhead. Because it faces threats from missiles and rockets of all ranges, some of which could in the near future be armed with nuclear weapons, Israel is building a layered missile defense system that includes several versions of its Arrow long-range interceptor, the U.S. Patriot PAC-3, the Iron Dome and soon a system called David’s Sling.
Even as Israel has deployed ever more sophisticated defensive technologies, its enemies have not given up on the use of missiles and rockets. Their offensive counter to Israeli missile defenses has taken two forms. The first is to massively increase their holdings of ballistic missiles and rockets hoping simply to inundate Israeli defenses or run them out of interceptors. The second is to improve the guidance on their larger and longer-range rockets and missiles making them more likely to find their target and thereby forcing the defense to engage each and every incoming weapon.
In the latest cycle of the offense-defense dynamic, there are reports that Israel is planning to add directed energy weapons to its array of missile defense capabilities. A system called the “Iron Beam” will be deployed to better counter the very short-range/short flight time rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip. Although details about the Iron Beam system are lacking, it probably is a relatively low-power solid state laser weapon.
The U.S. and Israel have been working on laser-based defenses for more than a decade. As far back as 2004, the chemically-powered Tactical High Energy Laser system successfully engaged and destroyed missiles, rockets, artillery projectiles and even very small mortar shells fired singly and in salvoes. Recently both the U.S. Navy and Army demonstrated the ability of low-power solid state lasers to engage rockets, artillery shells, unmanned aerial vehicles and even small boats. The Navy will demonstrate a much more powerful prototype solid state laser aboard a ship in the Persian Gulf. It is not surprising that Israel would be as far along in developing directed energy weapons as is the United States, perhaps farther.
A solid state laser weapon offers the potential to radically alter the offense-defense dynamic in favor of the latter. Such a weapon has three features that makes it highly desirable as part of a defensive architecture: instantaneous time of flight, low cost per shot and, depending on the power source, a virtually infinite magazine. It is particularly well suited for countering short-time-of-flight and high speed threats. Because of its extremely low cost per shot and near-infinite magazine, a solid state laser system could bend if not break the historically unfavorable cost-exchange ratio between missile offense and a missile-only defense.
Israel is showing the United States the way. We have directed energy technology every bit as good as Israel’s. We both face similar threats. What we lack and they have is the commitment to deploy directed energy weapons.
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