Sat 4 April, 2020

Laser Defence: Exploring the Futuristic War and India-Israel co-operation - Part I

(Part I of a 2-part series)

We are all intrigued by ‘sci-fi’ (science fiction) films like The War of the Worlds or Invasion Planet Earth that push our imagination to envision futuristic weapons and their use in the real conflicts instead of those merely with the aliens. 

The nature of warfare in the 21st century is rapidly evolving and it is essential to understand the technological development of weapons and the motivation behind their development, which is not essentially the same for every country. 

In the coming decades, success in the battlespace--a refined definition of the classical “battlefield” that integrates ground, air, and naval theatres--will be increasingly determined by the belligerents’ ability to develop and apply high-tech solutions to novel problems.

Directed-Energy Weapons (DEWs) is one such futuristic technology in which ranged weapons strike their targets with highly focused punches of energy that may come in the form of laser, microwave, or particle beams. 

India has tested one such laser beam that carries the potential to incapacitate almost any aerial targets without leaving any physical debris. 

The United States, Russia, China, and recently Turkey are all known to be developing DEWs, however, considering India’s border challenges and continued conflict, it is essential to be prepared for a future conflict. 

With even more complicated border issues than India and an on-going conflict, Israel is another country that plans to advance this technology. 

One cannot deny the exemplary standard the country has set in developing defence technology. Israel, too, has tested a laser-based system recently that will complement its Iron Dome anti-missile system. 

Foreign relations between India and Israel have become more amicable in recent years, making it the right time to expand collaboration as the security challenges they face continue to converge.

Israeli Iron Dome Missile System. Source: CNN

Israeli Capabilities

Israel has done robust research and development in the field of air and missile defence. The Israeli security establishment’s focus on air defence is largely a response to the evolving asymmetric capabilities of its immediate adversaries. 

Iran and its region-wide network of militant proxy clients have amassed the largest missile arsenal in the world, let alone the middle-east.  Poised along the length of Israel’s northern front, the Lebanese Hezbollah alone is thought to have stockpiled somewhere in the neighbourhood of 150.000 missiles.

Similarly in Gaza, terrorist groups like Hamas and the Iranian-sponsored Palestinian Islamic Jihad have likewise embraced crude missile barrages as the centerpiece of their offensive strategy.

Since the early 2000s, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has been working to develop an integrated, multi-tiered missile defence system in response to this specific set of airborne threats. 

The oft-trumpeted Iron Dome System, which is essentially an anti-short-to-medium range missile interceptor, is but a single component of this layered aerial defence concept. 

Built into the IDF’s aerial defence shield are components such as the short-to-medium range missile interception(Iron Dome), long-range rocket interceptors (David’s Sling), domestically-developed anti-ballistic missiles (Arrow System), and the American-made Patriot anti-ballistic missile system.

Given its small geographical size and corresponding lack of strategic depth, Israel’s missile defence shield stands as a fundamental pillar of the state’s overarching security paradigm. 

Despite its sophistication, the Israeli missile defence umbrella is far from hermetic.  Though mortar and short-range rocket fire can technically be intercepted by the Iron Dome, the interceptor missiles bear a price tag around $100.000 per unit.

When encountering a missile barrage numbering in the hundreds or thousands of projectiles, the operating cost of relying on this system becomes untenable. Another new challenge faced by military planners grew out of the March of Return protests that began along the Gaza border in March 2018: primitive incendiary balloons and kites, that dealt millions of dollars in economic damage to the Strip’s agricultural periphery.

In response to the prohibitively-expensive operating cost of the Iron Dome alongside the emerging threat of airborne incendiary objects, the IDF, in cooperation with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd, is developing a new lowest-tier in its anti-missile shield. 

In January 2020, the IDF announced the successful testing of a laser-based air defence weapon that may revolutionize surface-to-air weaponry.  Details are sparse, and more comprehensive testing has been scheduled for later in 2020. However, the limited information that has been released suggests the emergence of what is truly an armament of the future.

India's Capabilities

In 2017, India tested laser technology under its Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO).  Though it created a buzz in the political arena, no astonishing progress has been reported since August 2017 when DRDO conducted a 1KW laser weapon system test. 

The weapon hit a target from 250m at Chitradurga in Karnataka. Former Defence Minister Arun Jaitley witnessed that it took just 36 seconds for the laser to make a hole in a metal sheet. 

As of now, laser components are being imported from Germany, but according to officials, it will take years for the weapon to become operational. The Centre for High Energy Systems and Sciences (CHESS) has also initiated the development of a prototype 10-kilowatt laser weapon which was tested for a range of 800 meters in one of its testing facilities. 

DRDO’s next step is to test a higher-powered laser, 2KW, mounted on the truck against a metal sheet located at a distance of 1km. A key advantage of such a system is that it can easily target the adversaries’ arsenal and bases in seconds without any major collateral damage, meaning relatively lower margins of error. 

DEWs could become a crucial tool for Indian forces to take on and engage threats from missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as their mere possession signals a major deterrence capability. 

Sugandh P Ojha, Jacob Zucker

Sugandh P Ojha holds a Master's degree in International Relations and is currently pursuing another Masters' in Security and Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University. She has worked as a researcher with think tanks, political parties and policymakers in India. Jacob Zucker is a graduate from Princeton University and has served in the Israeli Defence Forces in the Paratrooper Brigade, also continues to participate in reserves. He is currently pursuing Masters' in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd