Israel requires about 12 laser systems to protect northern communities from Hizbullah short-range rockets fired from Lebanon.

A leading former defense official, Oded Amichai, said Israel would require between 10 and 12 Sky Guard laser systems or the equivalent to protect northern Israel from short-range 122 mm Katyusha rockets. Amichai, a leading laser designer for Israel’s military, said the systems would cost around $1 billion.

“It would have intercepted all of the rockets fired during the war,” Amichai said. “All of the experts in Israel and the United States have concluded that 10-12 systems were needed to hermetically defend the entire northern border.”

Amichai said the first Sky Guard laser system would cost $150 million. He said subsequent systems would be priced at between $25 million and $70 million, depending on the number of units ordered.

In January 2006, Northrop Grumman briefed the Defense Ministry on Sky Guard. The system was said to be one-quarter the size of the Tactical High Energy Laser, a joint Israeli-U.S. chemical laser weapon that succeeded in tests but was regarded as too bulky for operational use.

“For an order of 10, it [Sky Guard] would cost about $35 million to $40 million [each],” Amichai said.

Amichai, who said he is not a representative or employee of Northrop Grumman, said each attempted interception by Sky Guard would cost $1,000. A kinetic anti-rocket interceptor being considered by Israel has been estimated at costing $60,000.

Sky Guard contains a radar that identifies the rocket launch, Amichai said. The system’s command and control component then switches to an electro-optic mode to track and lock onto the incoming rocket. He said the entire process takes between one and two seconds.

“The laser is tracking the rocket the entire time and knows when it is destroyed,” Amichai said. “The laser beam ends only when the rocket is destroyed.”

In an interview with Israel Army radio on September 4, Amichai said Israel’s military rejected an offer to conduct trials of Sky Guard. He said the system was offered to test its capability against the Palestinian-origin Kassam-class missiles, fired nearly daily from the Gaza Strip.

Amichai said a Sky Guard system could protect the southern Israeli city of Sderot. He said three to five such systems could intercept any short-range missile fired from the Gaza Strip.

The Sky Guard project stems from the Tactical High Energy Laser system, a project of Israel and the United States and canceled in 2005. In 2000, THEL was offered to Israel, but the military deemed it too bulky for operational use.

“In 2000, the withdrawal from Lebanon led to faulty thinking that the rocket threat had ended,” Amichai said. “And all of the appeals by the company and myself didn’t help. When rockets began striking Sderot, we even offered to bring one system for free. The military didn’t want it.”

Earlier military sources said the Sky Guard system was judged as too expensive and ineffective against salvos of rockets and missiles. The Defense Ministry selected Raytheon and Rafael, Israel Armament Development Authority to design a kinetic interceptor for incoming short-range missiles and rockets.

Yet amid the Hizbullah war with Israel, Defense Minister Amir Peretz has ordered a reassessment of Sky Guard. Peretz has appointed a panel that would determine within several months the feasibility of Sky Guard as well as other proposed systems.

“This is the first time in a decade that a defense minister has taken an interest in this,” Amichai said. “The last [Israeli] defense minister who was involved in this was Shimon Peres [in 1996].”