Under development for nearly four years, the joint U.S.-Israeli Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) destroyed an in-flight, short-range Katyusha rocket for the first time during a June 6 test. Although Lieutenant General John Costello, commanding general of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, hailed the test as turning "science fiction into reality," the laser must still undergo several more tests, including tests against multiple rockets, before being shipped to Israel later this year, as currently planned.
Stemming from an April 1996 commitment from President Bill Clinton to then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres to help defend northern Israeli cities from terrorist attacks, THEL is a high-energy chemical laser designed to shoot down short-range rockets. In the June 6 test, THEL identified, tracked, and shot down the Katyusha rocket, which was traveling at about a speed of Mach 1, without any preprogrammed information on the rocket's trajectory or outside guidance. The effective range of the laser is classified, and its operational performance is susceptible to environmental factors, such as wind, rain, and fog.
At present, Israel only intends to take delivery of the current THEL demonstrator, while the United States has no plans to acquire the system, which Pentagon officials say is not mobile enough for U.S. defense needs. However, a U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command spokesperson remarked that the "THEL success demonstrates that high-energy lasers do have the potential for meeting the Army's need" for defenses against rockets, mortars, and artillery. The current program is expected to total more than $250 million dollars, including an Israeli contribution of $67.5 million.