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Is Israel's IRON BEAM laser already in combat?

Over the past week, there has been a surge in videos circulating online, claiming to show Israel's Iron Beam laser in action. These videos have raised questions about the readiness of this cutting-edge technology for combat. In this article, we will unravel the significance of the Iron Beam, its capabilities, and its implications for the future of air defense.

Before we delve into the authenticity of those viral videos, let's get acquainted with the Iron Beam. This remarkable piece of military technology is a directed energy or laser air defense system, under development by Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. In the not-so-distant future, it could play a pivotal role in intercepting rockets and mortars, much like the footage suggests.

However, here's the first thing you need to know: genuine directed energy weapons don't produce visible beams of light. So, those viral videos are, in fact, misleading. One of them merely captured a real Iron Dome intercept, with a lens flare creating the illusion of a laser. The other used footage from the video game Arma 3. 

Now, let's focus on the real Iron Beam. How capable is it, and what can it achieve when it enters combat, which could be sooner than you think?

The Iron Beam belongs to the category of 100 KW class high-energy laser weapon systems (HWS). Its primary purpose is to complement Israel's renowned Iron Dome air defense system, not replace it. To understand why this is crucial, it's essential to grasp Israel's multi-layered air defense strategy.

Israel employs the Arrow system for high-altitude, long-range threats like ballistic missiles, the David's Sling for intermediate-range threats including cruise missiles, and the Iron Dome for short-range attacks like mortars and rockets. Each system has its niche, tailored to specific threats. 

The Iron Dome excels at discerning when an incoming rocket or mortar poses a genuine threat to life or property. Intercepting only when necessary helps conserve resources. However, it's an expensive approach, with each Tamir interceptor missile costing between $30,000 and $100,000.

This is where the Iron Beam steps in as a game-changer. According to the Congressional Research Service, each laser intercept with the Iron Beam may cost just between $1 and $10 in terms of power. The cost-effectiveness could significantly alleviate the financial burden of defending against frequent, low-cost rocket attacks, as we've seen in recent weeks.

While lasers offer exciting prospects, they come with inherent limitations. The Iron Beam, as a 100 KW class weapon, is more potent than some existing laser systems but falls short of the power output required for countering certain threats. According to the Congressional Research Service, 100 KW lasers can tackle rockets and possibly small drones, but higher-powered lasers are needed for countering cruise missiles or ballistic missiles.

Moreover, lasers demand a direct line of sight to engage a target, making them most effective at short ranges. Precision in beam control is paramount, as it takes time to burn through a target. Atmospheric factors like scattering and thermal blooming can hinder their effectiveness, but for the Iron Beam, designed for close-range defense, these issues are less concerning.

The United States, too, is actively investing in laser technology for defense. The Navy deployed its first laser weapon system in 2014, evolving to the 60 KW Helios system, with plans to test a 300 KW system. The Air Force and Army have also embraced laser technology, with increasingly powerful systems in their arsenals.

Beyond the U.S., Russia's Peresvet system and China's LW30 have entered the arena. While specific power outputs may vary, these nations recognize the potential of lasers for defense.

In conclusion, laser technology holds immense promise for air defense, particularly against threats like drone swarms. Its cost-effectiveness, limitless magazine depth, and speed of light engagement make it a compelling choice. However, technical limitations and the need for precise targeting mean it won't replace traditional kinetic intercept systems entirely.

As for the Iron Beam depicted in viral videos, the answer is a resounding "no." But, will the Iron Beam likely become a key player in Israel's defense against rockets and mortars in the near future? The answer is a promising "yes."

The future of air defense is evolving faster than ever before, and while lasers might not be the ultimate solution for all threats, they are undeniably a significant step forward in safeguarding nations against aerial dangers.

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