The THEL system, developed by TRW Inc., was successful in two tests against Katyusha rockets.Experts say lightening-fast defense will be needed to protect Israeli civilians and the military from surprise attacks by short-range rockets, cruise missiles, popup helicopters and other weapons systems that might be employed by terrorists.

In fact, such a threat has already materialized in the form of Russian-made Katyusha rockets that have been launched into towns in northern Israel by terrorist groups based in southern Lebanon. As a result, the Israel Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Army have joined forces to help remove this threat and similar threats in the future by sponsoring development of the Tactical High Energy Laser by TRW Corp. in Redondo Beach, Calif.

The system is mobile and is contained in several semi-trailer sized cartons, allowing it to be redeployed quickly. Its three major subsystems include a command, control communications and intelligence subsystem, which includes a radar system provided by Israel and a “pointer-tracker” subsystem, which tracks the target and guides the laser to it.

The laser weapon is already deployed in Israel, where it is known as the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system. The Arrow system is guided by Israel’s Green Pine radar that picks up the frequent missile testing in the Middle East.

The laser has a proven track record of targeting and destroying operational short-range terrorist threats, including rockets, on the first attempt. THEL is the world’s first integrated laser weapon system and has been successful in shooting down a Katyusha carrying a live warhead. The intercept and destruction of the 10-foot long, 5-inch diameter rocket was performed at the U.S. Army’s laser test facility at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

In further tests the laser shot down multiple Katyushas in a single rapid-fire engagement. The laser’s proven power against short-range tactical threats is the result of research by a TRW-led team in both Israel and the United States to meet needs mandated by the Gulf War of 1991.

Shorter-range Iranian Fajr 5 rockets acquired by Hezbollah and deployed in Lebanon are another threat that Israel wants to counter with the THEL system. The rockets have a range of 75 kilometers and a warhead of about 200 kilograms.

“Killing one rocket was significant, but being able to show that we can consistently kill two or more targets per engagement puts (the laser) in a class by itself,” said Lt. Gen. John Costello, commanding general of the U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Command. “These tests are making it increasingly clear that directed energy weapon systems have the potential to provide some unique and very effective defensive options on the tactical battlefield.”

Until the development of the THEL system, the United States had no weapon systems capable of protecting soldiers or military hardware involved in regional conflicts from short-range missile attacks. Conventional missile defense systems such as the Army’s Theater High-Altitude Area Defense and the Patriot missile are designed to defend against longer-range threats, such as Scud missiles. In contrast, the high-energy systems such as THEL send out “bullets” of energy at the speed of light, to destroy rockets, mortars or cruise missiles in just seconds. “It’s pretty hard to run from a laser,” said Timothy W. Hannemann, executive vice president and general manager of TRW Space and Electronics Group.

THEL is also aimed at containing the missile capabilities from other nations that could threaten Israel, including Iran and Iraq. Iran has tested a missile with a range of about 1,300 kilometers, which would enable it to target all of Israel with either conventional or chemical warheads. At the same time Iraq may have renewed its efforts to develop long-range ballistic missiles following the collapse of United Nations arms inspections. Egypt is also making efforts to develop new ballistic missile capabilities and increase the range and accuracy of the missiles in its arsenal.

The United States has increased its annual contribution to the Arrow anti-ballistic missile program following recent successful tests of the system and parallel to the Bush administration’s own plans to build a ballistic missile shield.

TRW has been a leader in the field of laser research and development since the early ’60s, and produces high-energy chemical lasers for space, ground and airborne missile defense. The company designs and develops solid-state lasers for defense and industry.