From The Editor | November 20, 2023

Beyond Iron Dome: Is Defending Against DEWs Possible

John Oncea

By John Oncea, Editor

Military Technology GettyImages-950356372

As of this writing the conflict between Israel and Hamas is approaching 50 days (or 36 years, depending on how you choose to define it). While Hamas most likely doesn’t have directed energy weapons at its disposal several countries do. Is an Iron Dome-like defense system possible for the inevitable day when directed energy weapons are used for an attack?

Israel’s Iron Dome, fully deployed in 2011, is a missile defense system used to intercept and destroy short-range rockets and artillery shells. In the past decade, other missile defense systems with capabilities surpassing those of the Iron Dome have been unveiled including America’s THAAD (terminal high-altitude area defense) and Patriot systems.

But, according to HowStuffWorks, Iron Dome has “become the most-used, most-combat-tested and, as many suggest, most effective missile defense system in the world. Ever.”

Iron Dome is designed to protect against very short-range rockets and 155mm artillery shell threats with a range of up to about 45 miles. The system can be operated in all weather conditions, including fog, dust storms, low clouds, and rain.

Strategically placed, it protects the population and critical assets while minimizing collateral damage. The Iron Dome detects, analyzes, and intercepts a wide range of incoming threats, including counter-rocket, artillery, mortar (C-RAM), precise guided missiles (PGM), cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, air-breathing threats, and dense salvos. The system has a remarkable track record, having intercepted more than 2,500 incoming targets with a success rate of over 90% during the past decade.

Iron Dome is not infallible. According to Defense One, Hamas’ October 7, 2023, attack caught Israel “off guard by a very large-scale missile attack. The group fired several thousand missiles at several targets across Israel. While exact details are not available, it is clear that a significant number of the Hamas missiles penetrated the Israeli defenses, inflicting extensive damage and casualties.”

This attack illustrated that “even the best air defense systems can be overwhelmed if they are overmatched by the number of threats they have to counter.”

HowStuffWorks adds, “If Hamas or another of Israel's enemies were ever to launch a more potent missile, say a ballistic missile, Iron Dome is not equipped to handle that. Those missiles are bigger and faster, with longer and steeper trajectories. Iron Dome is specifically for shorter-range threats.” Another attack that Iron Dome can’t defend against, beyond ballistic missiles and a ground attack such as the one that occurred on October 7, is a directed energy weapon (DEW).

Israeli defense technology company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, responsible for developing Iron Dome, is also credited with the development of Iron Beam, the fifth element of Israel's integrated missile defense system which is composed of the aforementioned Iron Dome, as well as Arrow 2, Arrow 3, and David’s Sling.

“Iron Beam is considered a directed-energy weapon,” writes C4ISR. “Such wartime tools typically come in two forms. One, like Rafael’s, is a high-energy laser; the other is a high-power microwave. Whereas the former focuses a beam or beams of energy to blind, cut, or inflict heat damage on a target, the latter pumps out waves of energy that fry electronic components and render technologies useless.”

But these types of defenses are DEWs applied to beefing up a military’s offensive and defensive arsenal. They’re not a system designed to stop a DEW attack.

Defending Against DEWs

A DEW is a weapon that damages its target with highly focused energy without a solid projectile, including lasers, microwaves, particle beams, and sound beams. Potential applications of this technology include weapons that target personnel, missiles, vehicles, and optical devices.

In addition to Israel, China, Russia, France, Germany, India, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the United States are developing military-grade DEWs while Iran and Turkey also claim to have them in service. The first use of DEWs in combat between military forces was claimed to have occurred in Libya in August 2019 by Turkey, which claimed to use the ALKA directed-energy weapon.

After decades of research and development, most DEWs are still at the experimental stage and it remains to be seen if or when they will be deployed as practical, high-performance military weapons.

Will it be possible to defend against the use of DEWs? Yes, but it’s difficult because their capabilities are not yet fully known. One program looking into methods of defense is the Counter-Directed Energy Weapons (CDEW) Program, created in response to the development of DEWs by potential foreign adversaries.

Part of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), CDEW “was initiated in response to the rapid development of high energy lasers (HEL) and high-power microwave (HPM)/high-power radio frequency (HPRF) threats being developed by potential foreign adversaries. CDEW research program expands the understanding of the known sciences through both research and component testing to increase survivability and self-defense capabilities for U.S. Navy platforms.

“Directed energy weapons technology advancements and proliferation have raised the urgency of developing low-cost CDEW technologies for rapid deployment to Navy units. The ONR CDEW program addresses emerging directed energy threats in an operational, maritime construct containing three layers of defense: DEW detection, DEW effects mitigation, and unit protection.”

ONR notes numerous challenges and opportunities surrounding their research, including:

  • Scientific modeling and simulation of effects of HPRF and HEL capabilities against materials, electronics, sensors, and platforms in a maritime environment
  • The simulation and validation of CW laser beams’ optical performance and material (including metamaterials) responses in complex aero-thermal and aero-optic conditions, or that offer related aperture optical coating toughness.
  • Novel instrumentation for detection of HEL and HPRF irradiation, including component development or the modeling and sensing of low-level laser irradiation for off-axis (off-target directed) detection, characterization, and source geo-location.
  • HEL and HPRF mitigation and protection components, including novel filters, signal-noise mitigation, and utilizing material obscurants.
  • HEL and HPM protection methods, including laser material hardening and electronic hardening, such as the development of metamaterials, nanoscale materials, and nonlinear materials that enhance and ensure platform survival, operation, and integrity.

Despite the increasing interest, investment, and use in the creation and application of DEWs there is little to be found in how to mount an effective defense against an attack. Among the suggested defensive measures being floated around are passive countermeasures such as hardening intended targets against attack mechanisms by using radiation-resistant electronics and shields; maneuvering, hiding, and using decoys of intended targets; and keeping an inventory of intended targets at the ready to replace any targets disabled or destroyed.

Active countermeasures to consider start with deploying DEWs against those being used in an attack either to deter or destroy the opposing DEW, sort of a DEW self-defense.

The global proliferation of DEWs presents a new threat as nations look to leverage the technology and its relatively high potential for mission success and low operational costs. The use of these weapons necessitates new engineering solutions for militaries to keep pace. It is essential to proactively plan for counter-directed energy weapon methods, tactics, and capabilities.