Even in a James Bond film, it might seem a little far-fetched: a laser that can shoot enemy missiles out of the sky. But in a country at war, where self-preservation is the mother of invention, Israel’s military has successfully tested a new defence system that destroys incoming rockets using beams of light.
The project is the brainchild of Dr Danny Gold, Israel’s equivalent to MI6’s Q, the scientific genius behind the Iron Dome air-defence system that casts a protective shield over a country that is regularly bombarded by Hamas from the south and Hezbollah to the north.
“This is where the brains sit, close to the clouds,” said our escort, guiding us through layers of security and up in the lift to Dr Gold’s office on the top floor of Israel’s ministry of defence, with expansive views across Tel Aviv.
Dr Gold, a brigadier general who heads up Israel’s Defense Research and Development Directorate inside the defence ministry, said the new laser had been “played with” during the ongoing conflict with Hamas.
The Iron Dome, he explains, is only a part of the shield that envelopes Israel. Above it sits David’s Sling, designed to knock out enemy aircraft and medium- to long-range rockets such as cruise missiles fired from up to 200 miles away. Above that are Arrow 2 and Arrow 3, offering protection from ballistic missiles fired at the country by the likes of Iran.
Arrow 3 was deployed successfully for the first time back in November, intercepting a missile fired at Israel by Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The new defence system is Iron Beam. “Now we add a new dimension. It is a laser,” said Dr Gold.
With a war looming in the north and with 160,000 Hezbollah rockets pointed in the direction of Tel Aviv, Israel’s air defences could soon be tested like never before.
On a screen projected in his office, Dr Gold demonstrates Iron Beam’s effectiveness, playing a video of a test run. It shows a drone taking off and the Iron Beam laser being pointed at the target. A beam of light is fired at the drone, cutting through its wing and sending it to the ground.
“It was a very good test,” he said. “We got authorisation one year ago to go to full-scale development and bring the system to the field. We will finish the job in numerous years... I can’t tell you exactly when. And once in a while we play with the current toolkit that we have. If we have the opportunity of people shooting at us, we can expand the testing.”
Only in Israel (such is the collective resilience) can war ever be seen as an opportunity to make the Jewish nation safer in the future. Oct 7, admitted Gold, was a “disaster” but not, he adds ruefully, “a technology disaster”.
Dr Gold, who is in his 60s and whose parents were Holocaust survivors, took Iron Dome from drawing board to deployment in record time. The dome, he explains, is 90 per cent successful at stopping incoming attacks. The new laser system will not replace Iron Dome but work alongside it. Not least, as Dr Gold admits, the system doesn’t work through clouds. It needs clear skies. Luckily, Israel has those.
The advantages are obvious. Cost. Each missile fired by Iron Dome costs in the region of $100,000 (£80,000). “To shoot light is nothing. It is the price of electricity.”
Not that by weapons standards Iron Dome is expensive. On the contrary, it is “very cheap and it is also the best”.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s former prime minister, in 2022 estimated that each Iron Beam interception would cost around $2.
Iron Dome is designed to destroy short-range rockets and artillery shells fired from distances of as little as a couple of miles. “The system,” he said, “is working well but you never sit still.
“We are thinking all the time,” added Dr Gold. Every point of attack is investigated. “Underwater, underground, space.” Underground is particularly a problem in Gaza, where Israel has been hunting down Hamas fighters in the complex system of tunnels. But cyber warfare (the “soft dimension” he calls it) is also now a top priority; Israel is cognisant of the threat posed by Iran’s army of sophisticated computer hackers.
I wonder if the threats keep him up at night, the worry of keeping Israel safe. “We think all the time. But if I was awake for every signal, every noise, I would never sleep. But we defend Israel. That is our main cause.”
Dr Gold takes us through videos showing just some of the many other innovations he presides over.
One includes an El Al passenger jet fitted with its own laser beam that can shoot down missiles. The laser is fitted to planes on only certain high-risk routes. He won’t say what but I don’t think London is one of them.
I leave Dr Gold, wondering if an all-out attack by Hezbollah will breach his defences. I know that politicians in Israel are weighing up the risk to civilian life should they launch an all-out attack on southern Lebanon. The reality is some missiles will get through and some will likely hit the expensive high-rise residential blocks that have sprung up in Tel Aviv during years of boom.
If the war on a new front comes, it will be horrific. But Dr Gold will know he did all he can to keep his people safe.