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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

To Kill A Katyusha

Posted 8/15/2006

Strategic Defense: Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there is a defense against the Katyusha rockets that Hezbollah has used to pummel northern Israel. And it can help protect the United States too.

As with most things, the conventional wisdom is wrong on this too. The U.S. was routinely shooting down Katyusha rockets at the White Sands proving ground in New Mexico as early as 1998 using a high-energy laser weapon that would explode their warheads in flight, a weapon initially developed as part of President Reagan's visionary Strategic Defensive Initiative .

When Reagan conceived SDI to defend us against a ballistic missile attack, it was envisioned as a multilayered system. One feature was a space-based component using a high-energy laser. Enemy missiles would be targeted in their boost or launch phase before they could deploy countermeasures or multiple warheads.

But it was found this technology had a tactical land-based application too. The problem with rockets like the Katyusha is they are cheap and plentiful, with short flight times and distances. The reaction times and targeting abilities of existing defenses are inadequate. But not with the Theatre High Energy Laser system.

Such a ground-based, rapid-fire laser, operating like a high-tech machine gun, sprays the target sky with enough high-energy pulses that a Katyusha barrage could be stopped in its tracks. The poor man's ballistic missile would be made ineffective, if not obsolete.

So why weren't these weapons deployed? Well, the space-based version ran into objections about the militarization of space — never mind that space is exactly what enemy warheads must pass through on their way to targets in the U.S.

The land-based version, deemed so effective that it could have been shipped to Israel as early as 1999, also fell victim to "cost effectiveness." However effective, it would still cost more to shoot Katyushas out of the sky than it costs the enemy to make them.

But look at the costs imposed by Hezbollah's Katyushas — a devastated Lebanese infrastructure, hundreds of civilian deaths, northern Israel rendered uninhabitable.

Consider also that a single nuclear warhead — an Iranian Shahab or North Korean Nodong — launched from a ship in international waters off our coast and detonated high above the U.S. would unleash an electromagnetic pulse that would fry every unprotected electronic circuit in the U.S., sending the American economy back perhaps a century.

The Soviets are developing new land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles with maneuverable warheads.

The Chinese have launched their first ballistic missile submarine, which can blanket the U.S. from home waters. Iran and North Korea are rushing to be able to nuke Israel and the U.S.

The best time to shoot down a missile comes right after launch, when it is big, slow and hot, as opposed to its descent phase, when it is fast and cold, and when its defensive countermeasures and multiple re-entry warheads have been deployed.

Launching a fleet of space-based lasers and deploying its land-based variant would be costly and provocative. Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran and Damascus, not to mention Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, wouldn't be happy.

But imagine a world where Katyushas would be reduced to bottle rockets on steroids, where if Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Kim Jong Il decided to put ICBMs on the pad, they'd look up to see U.S. space-based lasers ready to shoot them down.

1 comment:

DakotaAviator said...

This OpEd, while sounding like it has all the answers is actually far from it.

The lasers the OpEd refers (the THEL or Tactical High Energy Laser and similar ones) to have many serious disadvantages including; large power requirements, using toxic chemicals for fuels, the inability to simultaniously fix on and destroy multiple targets, serious range deterioration in humid or dusty air and especially in cloudy skies.

But generating the THEL's megawatts of laser power required hundreds of gallons of toxic chemicals — ethylene, nitrogen trifluoride. The weapons grew bulky; one proposed small-scale version was supposed to be kept in a mere eight cargo containers, each 40 feet long. A mobile THEL, on just a couple of trucks, proved to be too complex, and too expensive to contemplate. Worse, after a few shots, the lasers would have to be resupplied with a fresh batch of reactants. The logistics of hauling those toxins either through the air or across a battlefield made generals shiver. Israel eventually dropped out of the program. Then America did, too, turning its focus instead to solid-state, electric lasers.

Most of the Katyusha's are launched in volleys ranging from a couple to as many as several dozen.

Any THEL's would only get the first few in any volley (probably 1/3 at best) and most would still get through.

Cost is also a huge issue.

Figure 200-300 million each for a THEL, and 1000-2000 per shot plus admin and personel costs.

So to put in enough THEL's to make a difference would probably require 10-20 (maybe more) THEL's to cover the border zone and would cost 2 and 6 billion plus the cost of the chemical ammunition and crews to man them.

And all Hizballah (or whoever) would have to do to counter this is wait for days where it was very dusty, humid or with a good amount of cloud cover and then launch synchronized volleys.

End result is 6 billion plus down the tubes and most Katushas still get through.

Just my two cents.

Lasers: Israel's Rocket Defense? - http://www.defensetech.org/archives/002583.html

Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) destroys Katyusha rocket in shootdown test - http://www.smdc.army.mil/PubAff/00Press/THEL_Shootdown.html