Hizballah’s continuing rocket offensive against northern Israel will probably speed deployment of the Skyguard rocket defense system, offered by Northrop-Grumman. Skyguard is essentially an updated version of the THAL (Tactical High Energy Laser) system, developed over the past decade by U.S. and Israeli researchers.
Jonathan Repka at DefenseTech.org provided some interesting details of THAL’s history just as the current crises developed in the Middle East. As he notes, THAL showed great promise in tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. But its operational deployment was eventually slowed by operational and logistical concerns. Generating the laser energy needed to zap incoming rockets and artillery shells required hundreds of gallons of toxic chemicals.
And, if that weren’t enough, early THAL models were extremely bulky. One version was housed in eight, 40-foot shipping containers. Imagine trying to move a system that size around a battlefield, or across the rugged terrain of northern Israel. Eventually, the Israeli government dropped out of the program and the U.S. put THAL on the backburner, in hopes that solid state electrical laser technology would solve the environmental and logistical problems.
So far, the solid state lasers haven’t really panned out, and (in light of the Hizballah threat), THAL/Skyguard suddenly has a new lease on life. Northrop-Grumman representatives recently met with Israeli officials, and have proposed a slightly scaled-down version of the laser system, at a cost of $200 million, plus $1,000 a shot. The contractor is currently pursuing an export license for the system, which the Pentagon is almost certain to approve. The IDF’s push into south Lebanon will mitigate the current rocket problem (to some degree), but Israel needs a long-term, technology-based solution. Skyguard may not be the ultimate answer, but it can provide a much-needed, short-term defensive capability against the Katyusha threat.