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Implications of Laser Weapons for Ground Combat Operations

December 7, 2006

The intensity of combat between Hezbollah and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in southern Lebanon in July and August 2006 caught much of the world by surprise. In the short course of the conflict, some 4,228 Hezbollah rockets struck northern Israel, killing 53 Israelis, wounding some 2,000 more, paralyzing the region and causing a million civilians to live in shelters. The overall damage to the Israeli economy was estimated at $5.5 billion.

The Israeli counter to this barrage was relatively ineffective. IDF artillery counterbattery fire and airstrikes were unable to defeat the highly mobile Hezbollah rocket-launching crews firing from their home terrain and deftly employing cover, concealment and deception. Consequently, the IDF response was limited at times to providing warning of incoming fire to the vulnerable civilian population.

It might not have been so. The price Israel paid for lack of an effective anti-rocket defense was a consequence of past decisions not to complete development and fielding of a potentially valuable laser weapon system able to destroy Hezbollah’s rockets in flight. Beginning in the early 1990s the U.S. military recognized the potential advantage of a laser-based defense against rockets, artillery and mortars and began developing such a capability. After a successful test of the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) was conducted against a Katyusha rocket in 1996, Israel joined the program. In subsequent years the system shot down many different types of rockets, artillery and mortar rounds in field tests but did not fare well in the competition for funding in Washington. By late 2004 the Army withdrew financial support for a mobile THEL. Thus, in 2006 when even a prototype system not only might have saved lives and property in northern Israel but also demonstrated the revolutionary potential of laser weapons on the battlefield, nothing was available. The shattered lives and buildings in Israel once again provided stark testimony to the desirability of an effective, affordable defense against indirect-fire weapons—a defense now made feasible by advances in high-energy laser technologies.

Weapons firing projectiles propelled by chemical reactions—bullets, artillery shells, missiles— have dominated the tactical level of warfare for centuries. Today, advances in technology of high-energy lasers allow the application of other physical principles in a new class of weapons. Development of high-energy lasers with military potential is leading to the production of lightbeam weapons that transfer destructive energy to targets via coherent light. Over time, the primacy of chemically propelled projectiles may give way to dynamic coexistence and competition with directed-energy weapons as these next-generation weapons increasingly assume existing roles in the battlespace or new missions, such as active defense against projectiles.

The challenge to the U.S. military is that its understanding of laser weapons technologies is outpacing efforts to bring these capabilities into the force. Available funding for laser weapons development lags behind what would be necessary to bring technologies to maturity as quickly as possible. Equally threatening to the success of laser weapons in the field is the lack of attention to concept development for laser weapons’ operational employment. Unfortunately, this means that weapons developers may move along at great speed in designing advanced systems with tremendous battlefield potential, but they do so in splendid intellectual isolation. Lacking the guiding hand of operational requirements, they are unable to properly prioritize resources or focus on the weapons capabilities that are most important to warfighters. Just as sadly, military forces can field an expensive and promising new capability that remains underutilized because warfighters do not fully understand how to employ it to its greatest advantage.