Technology using solid lasers has not been developed, which is why Rafael is lowering expectations by saying its system will not be available for at least eight years.
In theory, using such technology would allow the system to lock on to a rocket as it is fired at Israel and send a beam traveling at the speed of light that will cause the warhead to heat up and explode within two seconds.
Meanwhile, the security establishment has tested the Nautilus system a number of times in its operative version, and a smaller version, the Sky Guard, finding it to be inadequate for its needs. Intense pressure by arms giant Northrop Grumman caused Defense Minister Director-General Pinchas Buchris to fly to New Mexico to reexamine the system. Upon his return last weekend, the official said the system he was shown cannot shoot down Qassam rockets.
Northrop Grumman sources claim, however, that he was not shown the system in action and that such a display will be given only if it receives an official request from Israel.
Meanwhile, Rafael is continuing to develop its Iron Dome system aimed at shooting down rockets from close range. Yet another system called the Magic Wand is being developed in cooperation with a U.S. firm. It is aimed at intercepting medium-range rockets by using existing Stunner missiles. Such systems will complement the Arrow system that intercepts long-range ballistic missiles. Still in the pipeline is an upgrade to the Arrow missile, the Arrow Mark-3, which will allow Israel to shoot down missiles from further away and at greater heights in a bid to provide Israel with a defense against missiles with a nuclear warhead.
The defense establishment says that despite such developments, the future lay in laser beams. Should such a system be functional, it would be a keystone in Israel's missile defenses. Once available, the Iron Dome will be costly; it will use expensive Tamir missiles that cost tens of thousands of dollars per unit to intercept cheap Qassam rockets assembled in garages. Using laser beams, however, would be exponentially cheaper. However, such a system is still a long way off.
"No such system currently exists anywhere in the world," an official said. "Therefore, development is expected to continue and we have a lot of work ahead of us. The ministry has submitted its requests and we are trying to respond to them."
Doctor Oded Amichai, a world-renowned expert on laser beams and an associate of Northrop Grumman that is developing the Nautilus, says its Sky Guard system will use a chemical-produced laser that will be able to be refitted for the solid lasers when they are developed. He argues that Nautilus systems should be purchased without delay. A source in the security forces said yesterday that the laser beam-based systems will, in any case, be complementary to the missile-based interceptors.
"Neither the missile interceptors nor the lasers will provide 100-percent coverage, which is why they will have to both be in use," the source said."