A laser weapon under joint Israeli-U.S. development destroyed a long-range rocket for the first time in a test in the skies over New Mexico, military spokesmen said Friday.
Israel has sought an effective defense against ballistic missiles since 1991 when Iraq launched Scuds into the Jewish state during the first Gulf War. It has since developed the Arrow anti-ballistic missile with U.S. funding.
“This is a significant step forward,” an Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman said of Tuesday's test of the Nautilus Tactical High Energy Laser, conducted at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Israel sees the Nautilus as another potential countermeasure to possible ballistic attack by enemies, which would include most Arab states and Iran. In turn, those nations see Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal as the biggest strategic threat to the region.
The Nautilus laser is being developed mainly by Northrop Grumman Corp. with the help of several Israeli high-tech firms specializing in optics and military hardware.
“The project has the potential to fill an important operational need for Israel,” said Shmuel Keren, the Israeli military’s director of weapons systems and infrastructure development. “The system can answer our need for a system which can intercept missiles and cruise missiles for which currently there is no effective solution.”
The Israeli Defense Ministry declined to elaborate on the test or the exact range of the intercepted missile. However, Pam Rogers, a U.S. Army spokeswoman in Huntsville, Ala., said the deuterium fluoride chemical laser destroyed an 11-foot-long, 6-inch-diameter (3.3-meter long, 15-centimeter-diameter) rocket.
In earlier tests the Nautilus laser had successfully eliminated 28 short-range Katyusha rockets and five artillery shells in flight as well as several “hostile objects” on the ground.
Northrop Grumman could deliver a mobile prototype by 2007 or 2008 if it gets a contract this summer, company spokesman Bob Bishop said from Redondo Beach, Calif. The project appears in the U.S. defense budget for fiscal 2004 with a $56 million allocation, he said.