Sources inform ''Globes'' that the Pentagon has killed the joint US-Israeli Natulus mobile tactical high energy laser (MTHEL), designed to intercept aerial targets such as rockets, missiles, artillery shells and other aerial threats at ranges of 5-6 kilometers.
Over the past three years, Israel’s defense establishment developed a system to use lasers to intercept kassam rockets. The defense establishment has been informed of the US decision. A senior Ministry of Defense official said, “I feel we’ve missed an immense opportunity.”
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Prof. Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, who served as IDF chief R&D officer when the decision to develop the Nautilus was taken said, “This is a fateful decision. We’ll have to live with kassam rockets for decades. Technologically, the laser system was the only solution in the foreseeable future that could intercept them.”
The Nautilus laser gun program was begun ten years ago. It was originally designed to enable the IDF to intercept Katyusha rockets fired by Hizbullah in Lebanon against communities in the Upper Galilee. A Nautilus prototype was initially developed at the laboratories of TRW Automotive (NYSE:TRW), in cooperation with Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd. (IAI), Rafael Armament Development Authority Ltd., and Elbit Systems Ltd. (Nasdaq: ESLT; TASE: ESLT). The technology chalked up impressive successes in tests in New Mexico, intercepting Katyushas in and mortar bombs mid-flight.
The prototype was completed five years ago. $250 million has been invested in the program to date, 80% of which was funded by the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command and the rest by Israel’s Ministry of Defense. When development was completed it was realized that the system was immobile, awkward and too big. In order to used effectively, its size had to be halved, to give mobility using trucks.
When the IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon in June 2000, Hizbullah stopped its heavy bombardment of the Upper Galilee. The Ministry of Defense therefore decided to use the Nautilus against other aerial threats, such as missiles, paragliders, and ultra-light aircraft.
When the Palestinians began massive firing of kassam rockets from the Gaza Strip, the Ministry of Defense and IDF developed the concept to use lasers as the morst effective defense against them. To speed up development, the Nautilus project was transferred to the Ministry of Defense’s Homa project, headed Aryeh Herzog, designed to protect Israel against ballistic missile threats. In the US, Northrop Grumman Corp. (NYSE:NOC) took over military laser programs, and became the chief contractor for the Nautilus.
Last year, Herzog held several meetings with US Army Space Command chiefs and Northrop Grumman executives to discuss further development of the program. A plan was formulated, under which development of a light and mobile system (the MTHEL) would be completed by 2008-09 at an additional investment of $300-400 million.
The plan was to deploy 6-7 Nautilus MTHELs to defend communities surrounding the Gaza Strip. Over a year ago, Israel received the Nautilus’s radar system, which has been integrated into a warning system in Sderot to warn against incoming kassam rockets.
In discussions in the US, the Americans criticized Israel for reducing its share in the financing of the Nautilus, and asked Israel to increase its budget share. Israel said its defense budget had been reduced, and there was no possibility of increasing its share in the program. Despite US criticism, Israel budgeted only $7 million a year in the past two years for the Nautilus. Israel recently learned that the Pentagon had decided to stop allocations for the program in 2006, thereby halting development.
Consequently, an argument broke out in Israel’s defense establishment over who was responsible for neglecting the program. Defense industry sources blame the Ministry of Defense. However, a senior ministry official said today, “The reason is that the US Army lost interest in the program. The US had invested $50 million a year in the program, but decided not to add another cent this year. It’s impossible to continue the program without US aid.”
The ministry source believes that the US decision was professional. The laser gun uses a chemical laser, and the US is now developing a solid-state laser interceptor. “The enemy of the good system we developed is new technology, which the US believes is better. That was the problem.”
A Ministry of Defense spokesman said in response, “As of now, there is uncertainty about further US Army financing for the program.”
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes.co.il - on January 18, 2006