The Wall Street Journal noted on Sunday that the Israelis, whose Iron Dome ballistic missile defense system has done much service blunting Hamas’ missile attack, is already working on an enhancement called “Iron Beam.” This would involve setting up some laser cannon that would shoot down short range missiles and mortar shells. Considering the unsettled politics of the Middle East, Iron Beam will likely get its first battlefield test shortly after it is developed and deployed.
Using lasers as battlefield weapons has been a dream of both science fiction and real world military planners since they were first invented. The idea reached their full flowering in the 1980s when they were considered for President Reagan’s SDI system that would have shielded the United States from Soviet missile attack. The concept was audacious, to say the least.
The idea was to deploy orbiting battle stations that would fire laser beams at Soviet missiles while they were in their launch phase, before they ejected multiple warheads creating many more targets that would have to be dealt with. Because he lasers were in space, they would not have to deal with atmospheric conditions such as rain or dust that would dilute their power. They would also be capable of multiple shots. They would be cheap to operate, at a few dollars a shot as compared to hundreds of thousands for a missile interceptor.
The ABM treaty, the end of the Cold War, and the great expense and technical challenge of building space based missile defense prevented SDI from being built. It did serve a psychological purpose against the Soviets by striking fear that their mighty nuclear tipped ICBM fleet would be rendered useless. The Americans, after all, landed men on the moon. There was nothing they could not do. SDI was a big factor in causing the Soviets to negotiate serious arms control agreements and ultimately led to the fall of the Soviet Union.
This is not to say that the United States has given up on laser weapons. The Navy is developing laser weapons that would be mounted on ships. They would be designed to shoot down missiles, planes, and even small boats that would threaten Navy ships. Testing is slated to begin in late summer, 2014. The first ships could receive laser batteries as early as 2016.