Israel looks at Nautilus laser to deal with Katyushas

Yossi Melman:

To date, the debate over the Nautilus laser gun has revolved around the question of whether, if development were completed, it would be able to counter the Katyusha rocket threat. The defense establishment's belief was that the system could not do the job, and therefore, it allowed the program to die for lack of funds. But after a month in which 15 percent of Israel's territory was hit by nearly 4,000 Katyushas, the question has changed. Now, officials want to know how many laser guns will be necessary to protect Israel from Katyusha and Qassam rockets, and how much they will cost, once the prototype is ready.

Dr. Oded Amichai considers himself the "father" of Israel's laser. He believes that 20 laser gun systems will be able to provide hermetic protection to northern Israel and the Negev at a cost of $1.25 billion. The defense establishment estimates that such a hermetic defense would require at least 70 systems, at a cost of $3 billion. Uzi Rubin, who headed the Arrow anti-missile project until 1999, says that a relatively small number of laser guns, positioned to protect strategic sites (refineries, city centers, etc.) would be sufficient.

The debate is fueled by issues of technology, military doctrine and scientific hypotheses. In order to examine them, it is important to study the history of the development of the laser gun in general, and specifically of the Nautilus system, which began a decade ago. To date, a total of $400 million has been invested in the project, $150 million by Israel and the rest by the United States.


The laser is a very powerful ray of light, and is therefore much faster than missiles. One of its problems is that contact with moisture (i.e. clouds) or dust weakens it. Another problem is its power source, of which one form is chemical and the other electrical (also known as "solid state lasers").


Experts at Rafael and the Defense Ministry insist that there are many technological and operational difficulties in developing a laser gun. The cost of developing the large power source is very high. However, each "shot" is relatively inexpensive, an estimated $1,000 to $3,000. It costs $3,000 to $5,000 to produce a Katyusha.

I am surprised that Katyushas cost that much. They are a pretty insignificant weapon for that price. The cost of the system, assuming it is effective, does not seem that bad when compared with the loss to the economy of the recent strikes. If it works, there is some potential profit in exporting the shield. The story has much more on the background and development of the system.


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