When I began writing about lasers in the 1960s, I imagined many uses for them, but I missed one: The Prevention of War. With 40 years of experience writing about civil and military high technology, and service as a naval officer before that, I can say with authority that the present Gaza conflict might have been avoided if laser defenses had been deployed. A decision that could have been taken four or more years ago.
Hamas stove-pipe rockets and mortar shells, the stated cause for Israel's invasion of Gaza, could have been turned into tiny bits of falling scrap metal by laser systems years ago.
Although Hamas' original unguided rockets carried a warhead, they were as unsophisticated as a teenager's science project. But while inaccurate, they could kill, and they injured hundreds, according to the BBC. Best, from Hamas perspective, they were cheap -- basically a steel pipe with fins, propellant (sugar and fertilizer) and a warhead. They were simple enough for amateurs to build in garages by the hundred and in 2008 Hamas fired an estimated 1750 into Israel.
Unfortunately, it seems that few in authority put much faith in the fact that rockets, shells, and mortar rounds -- weapons far more potent than Hamas fields -- can be shot down with high-energy beams of light.
THEL, the tactical high-energy laser, only looks like a searchlight; it does not illuminate, it eliminates. It was developed jointly by the United States and Israel during the 1990s, and tested at America's White Sands Missile Range. THEL tracks an incoming missile, mortar round, or artillery shell with its beam. The beam either physically destroys it or heats its warhead so that it explodes itself.
In 2004 tests, THEL was said to approach 100% effectiveness intercepting Katusha rockets, artillery shells, and mortar rounds at ranges of up to five kilometers. In fact, THEL might have been ready even earlier in this decade, protecting Israelis against the fire that triggered today's ongoing conflict.
Why isn't THEL defending Israel today? There are several reasons on the record, one being that the Israeli Defence Forces wanted a mobile version, an MTHEL, and therefore decided not to deploy the 1999 system. An MTHEL program was launched, but its funding was reduced. The cutback slowed development and MTHEL's operational date slid to 2010.
Though hardly cheap, as defense systems go, THEL's operation is not overly costly. Shooting down an incoming missile with THEL costs about $3,000, negligible compared with the price of an anti-missile, or surface-to-air missile, and dirt cheap compared to a human life.
I would stake my reputation on this: Israel could emplace THEL batteries a few kilometers apart at strategic locations along the Gaza and Lebanese borders, and THEL would soon convince Hamas that their cheap rockets were a waste of time. Ditto for the better rockets Hamas would like to get; compared with the speed of light, the most sophisticated rocket is very slow indeed.
From the Sea
Deploying THEL now will take time, but there is another system that could begin defending Israeli civilians within months -- Phalanx, also known as CIWS or "Sea-whiz."
Phalanx has been mature for decades. It is deployed by 23 navies as a last-ditch defense against supersonic anti-ship missiles, some of which manoeuvre wildly. It is used by the U.S. Navy on every class of surface combat vessel.
Phalanx already is available in a land version (called C-RAM) designed to combat mortar and rocket threats. The C-RAM Phalanx grew out of a 2004 request from U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker, who wanted a better means of defending U.S. troops in Iraq. It's deployed there today.
C-RAM is a short-range system, and not designed for use in urban locations, but it uses special ammunition which either hits the target or self-destructs to limit ground damage. Used in a border defense role, C-RAM would be aimed outward, away from one's citizens and toward the adversary. Also, land-based C-RAM Phalanx units can be mounted on trucks and moved as needed; the U.S. Army does that now.
C-RAM technology could probably defend against any present Hamas (or Hezbollah) missile or artillery threat, and against hardware neither group has gotten its hands on yet. THEL would be better, and longer ranged, but C-RAM was available last year.
So, if war and bloodshed are abhorrent, and the safety of citizens is paramount, why hasn't Israel deployed either system? Or both? Colliding priorities? Bureaucratic brain-cramp? If THEL and Phalanx were on the job, the kibbutzim might be able to sit under their olive trees and relax.
Whatever the reason -- bureaucracy, budget, or bullheadedness -- if rockets and mortar shells were the cause, the war in Gaza was almost certainly avoidable. Hamas might still have fired its rockets and mortars, but with fewer -- potentially zero -- lives and injuries at risk, this would have been an annoyance to Israel, not a cause for war.
More Questions than Answers
Israel alone is not to blame for today's violence; if there were no Hamas rockets and mortar rounds falling on Israel, would there be Israeli tanks in Gaza? So why haven't the residents of Gaza risen up against Hamas? They may have elected them, but the Hamas government is killing its own people with its policies. Surely that's reason enough to throw them out.
One answer seems that either nobody wants peace (provably false), another is that forces operate so powerfully within both camps as to make peace unattainable. Certainly, there are partisans on both sides to whom reason is a foreign language, and, the role of Iran, Syria, and others in fomenting jihadism among Palestinians is well known.
So, the world simply watches stupefied as two intelligent peoples, both Semitic, both "People of The Book," both capable of peace, fail to grasp it.
Obviously, there is a failure of leadership on both sides. New Israeli and Palestinian leaders must stretch their hands across the ashes and rubble, like de Gaulle and Adenauer after World War II. These men set aside historic hatreds and created international friendship when it seemed impossible. Until this happens, the dying will continue.
At the very least, technology is available to provide a defense that Israel needs for its security. Ironically, these very defenses would save Palestinian lives by making their artillery impotent.
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