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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.