For decades, missile defence has meant intercepting one projectile with another, so when the Israeli Defence Ministry said last week that it was planning to use light instead, heads turned.
Mention lasers to most people and they think of eye surgery or charging round darkened halls in teams wearing jetpacks and carrying guns.
Mention it to an Israeli in the defence industry, however, and they think of next-generation missile defence systems, a kind of Iron Dome Mark II, only this time with the ability to be used by individual Israeli aircraft.
Planes firing lasers at missiles may once have been the stuff of childhood fiction, but it is soon to become reality, with similar progress being made in the United States.
How does it work? It includes a beam-tracking system to illuminate the target and a high-powered laser to intercept it. Essentially, the incoming missile is blown out of the sky by a blast of thermal energy.
As with all cutting-edge military technology most details remain classified, but Israel’s defence industry certainly feels it has achieved a “technological breakthrough” in the use of lasers to intercept rockets and will be testing it in field trials this year.
The new system, which is being developed by Rafael and Elbit Systems, could be operational in 18 months, and is being designed to knock out rockets up to 30 miles away, as well as short-range mortars, anti-tank missiles and small aircraft.
Elbit, which already produces laser counter-measures, range-finders and pointers, is believed to be developing the airborne technology demonstrator for manned and unmanned aircraft under a Defence Ministry contract.
The concept of laser-based missile defence systems mounted on planes is not new – a Boeing design made its first flight in 2002 and shot its first lasers at an aerial target in 2007.
But the problems are complex. Not least: how to generate the huge amount of power onboard the aircraft needed to fire a laser beam and then rapidly cool the whole system down. Do you use vents? What do you do with the waste energy? How do you protect the aircraft? What material do you use to house the pod from which the beam is fired?
These are questions to which the Israeli teams clearly feel they have found answers, and with tensions in the Middle East rising, lasers cannot be added to the armoury fast enough.
There is an established blueprint: Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system has consistently shown how top technology can be effectively employed, and deserves every accolade for saving countless Israeli lives.
So, what to call Israel’s new laser system? Rafael went for ‘Iron Beam’ when it first presented the concept at the Singapore Airshow in 2014, but initial names may not be the last.
Answers on a postcard.