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Laser BMD Can Be Effective In Killing Short-Range Missiles: Analyst

By | August 14, 2006

      DHS Gives Northrop Anti-MANPADS Contract

      A tactical laser defense could be effective in killing short-range incoming enemy ballistic missiles, such as those now hitting Israel and attacking U.S. forces in Iraq, an analyst predicted.

      And, as ballistic missile defense systems go, this laser system would be relatively cheap, according to Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Washington- area think tank that focuses on defense and other issues.

      Terrorists and rogue states wielding short range missiles have created a critical need for a laser system such as Skyguard, an asset based on the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL), according to Goure. Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] developed Skyguard.

      The situation without such a shield in place is grim, Goure stated in an issue brief.

      “It is evident by now that the traditional Western superiority in conventional military forces is all but neutralized in the face of the strategic challenge posed by terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas armed with short-range rockets,” he wrote.

      “U.S. forces in Iraq continue to be challenged by insurgents firing light mortars. Israel’s two options for defeating Hezbollah’s rocket barrages are air power, which is proving ineffective, and a large-scale ground offensive, which is believed to be too costly in terms of casualties.”

      But technology already exists to counter the advantage of terrorists, according to Goure.

      “The answer has been sitting on the shelf for years now,” he stated. “It is a laser beam.

      “More than ten years ago, U.S. engineers and scientists demonstrated that it was possible to shoot down short-range rockets with a laser beam. This technology was considered so promising that the United States Army and the Israeli Ministry of Defense pursued a joint program to develop the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL). In a series of tests, the THEL successfully shot down forty-six artillery shells, mortar rounds and short-range rockets including Katyushas.”

      Those last weapons are among those that Hezbollah is firing into Israel.

      “A single Skyguard system could defend the entire Green Zone in Baghdad,” he noted. “Five could provide protection for all of northern Israel.”

      Goure expressed puzzlement that laser capabilities and systems such as Skyguard haven’t been exploited fully.

      “Despite successfully demonstrating that a laser defense is possible and that a deployable system could be built, the two countries essentially gave up on the idea,” he recalled. “Both the U.S. and Israeli governments thought that the more serious threat would come from longer-range ballistic missiles such as those Iraq once launched or the ones being deployed by North Korea and Iran. This is another example of planning to fight the last war.”

      Goure said Pentagon strategists instead should be focused on what they will need to fight the current wars, and future conflicts. Clearly, he said, the problem won’t be ICBMs launched by an old-style Soviet force, but rather will be huge numbers of short-range missiles. He spoke as Hezbollah, for example, has sent hundreds of short- to medium-range missiles into Israel. Some estimates put the Hezbollah arms cache at 10,000 missiles.

      “The need for a defense against short-range rockets is now apparent,” Goure said.

      “Fortunately, a relatively near-term solution exists,” Goure asserted. “Based on the THEL program, the new and more capable Skyguard tactical laser offers the promise of a highly effective defense against the rockets and mortars being employed against Israeli civilians and U.S. forces in Iraq.”

      The laser system also could have a homeland defense capability, protecting airliners from terrorist attacks, he continued.

      The “same Skyguard system could be employed near any airport to protect airliners from the threat of man portable air defense missiles (SAMs),” he wrote.

      As the number and frequency of terrorist attacks employing short range missiles visits devastation in more regions, it becomes ever clearer that attempting to track down the terrorists and their weapons is futile, Goure said.

      Such enemies frequently place themselves and their missiles near sacred sites such as mosques; in densely populated residential areas or even in apartment buildings; near schools; in or under critical infrastructure, and more.

      “Continuing on the current path of employing massive conventional firepower against a foe that shields itself behind women and children is a self-defeating strategy,” Goure reasoned. “The West needs its own asymmetric approach to the threat of terrorist rockets. It needs to deploy advanced defenses against rockets and missiles of all ranges” that will be effective after those long-concealed weapons are fired and become visible.

      A laser system like Skyguard could pick off those missiles as they head toward their targets, defeating insurgent groups, he wrote.

      Skyguard also would have another benefit: affordability, Goure continued.

      “A few hundred million dollars is all that is needed to turn Skyguard into a deployed capability,” he explained. “For an additional $1 billion northern Israel could be protected. In view of the destruction being suffered on both sides, this seems like a small investment that would produce major results.”

      Guardian System

      Northrop Grumman also makes another protective system for installation on airliners.

      The Department of Homeland Security selected Northrop for Phase III of the Counter-Man Portable Air Defense System (Counter-MANPADS) program.

      During the Phase III contract, which is valued at $55.4 million, Northrop Grumman will complete production of 12 Guardian missile defensive systems, modification of 11 MD-10 aircraft and operation of the Guardian systems onboard nine MD-10 cargo aircraft flying in regular commercial service, the company announced.

      The Guardian system is a defensive aid utilizing proven military technology to defend against the threat posed by anti-aircraft, shoulder-fired missiles, according to Northrop.

      Once launched, the missile is detected by the Guardian system which then directs a non-visible, eye-safe laser to the seeker head of the incoming missile, disrupting its guidance signals.

      To date, Northrop Grumman has completed a 16-month flight test program in commercial operational environments that included the use of a ground-based electronic missile surrogate to simulate the launch of a shoulder-fired missile toward aircraft during takeoff and landing, the company reported.

      The tests were performed on both an MD-11 and a 747 aircraft. In each test, the Guardian system functioned flawlessly, Northrop stated, automatically detecting the simulated launch and mock missile. Had the threats been real, an invisible laser beam harmful to the missile but safe to humans, aircraft and the environment would have defeated the threat.

      “Northrop Grumman is committed to supporting the Department of Homeland Security’s fight against MANPAD terrorist threats,” said Jeff Palombo, vice president of infrared countermeasures programs at Northrop Grumman’s Defensive Systems Division. “With the successful completion of flight testing onboard both the MD-11 and the 747, we are in an excellent position to enter into Phase III.”

      The Guardian system makes use of multi-band laser and other technologies from the company’s military directional infrared countermeasures system, the only such protection system currently in production for the U.S. military and several allied nations, according to Northrop.

      Northrop developed the Guardian system as part of the Department of Homeland Security initiative aimed at protecting commercial aircraft from attack by ground-based, shoulder- fired missiles.

      The DHS program is focused on demonstrating the viability, economics and effectiveness of adapting existing military technology to protect commercial aircraft from this terrorist threat.

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