US laser plans to defend Israel lack credibility

Perry-Peres pact: Hizbollah weapons may be too simple for the Nautilus anti-rocket system to target
The US-Israeli plan to use laser beams to destroy incoming Soviet-designed rockets launched by Hizbollah guerrillas is probably a con and is certainly unlikely to be effective in the near future, according to leading defence analysts.

The plan announced by the US Defense Secretary, William Perry, and Israel's Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, in Washington on Sunday, is unlikely to work because the so-called Katyusha rocket launchers - in fact, more recent Soviet- designed BM-21 Grad rockets - are simple and robust.

The first successful test of the Nautilus anti-rocket system in February relied on tracking a rocket flying at more than 2,000mph and fixing the laser on it for 15 seconds, half its total flight time, at maximum range. Whereas a laser might be useful against a highly sophisticated target, using it against a rocket-powered artillery shell flying at 2,000mph over a very short range is not a recipe for military or political success.

Leading defence analysts said yesterday that the Nautilus anti-missile laser was only at an experimental stage and the idea of using it against battle-proven rockets in a real battlefield situation was premature.

The much-publicised signing of a US-Israel agreement capitalised on the recent Hizbollah rocket attacks on Israel and the successful test- firing of a high-energy laser against a Soviet- designed BM-21 rocket in flight on 8 February.

The Nautilus has been developed by the US firm of TRW, Inc, of Cleveland, Ohio. No Pentagon funds are earmarked for it but Israel has reportedly promised to invest $20m (pounds 12m) if the US invests a further $50m next year.

In the February test, a deuterium fluoride laser, its beams invisible to the naked eye, was directed at a BM-21 artillery rocket, 122mm (4.8in) in diameter, for 15 seconds, as the rocket flew through the air. The laser melted the metal case of the rocket warhead and set it off. In an earlier test, the experimental system successfully intercepted a BM-21, flying without a warhead.

However, the BM-21 rocket, known as Grad ("hail"), flies at a maximum speed of 700m a second and will therefore reach its maximum range of 20km in little more than 30 seconds. The chances of picking it up immediately on launch and holding a laser on it for 15 seconds, assuming it is firing that far, are therefore not great.

Brooks McKinney, a spokesman for TRW, said yesterday: "This wasn't a tightly controlled laboratory experiment. It reflected realistic conditions. We believe we could field a demonstrator in less than two years."

Although the 40-barrelled BM-21, developed by the Soviet Union and widely manufactured in other Warsaw Pact states, is mounted on a truck, the missiles fired by Hizbollah are often launched from single rails which can be manhandled into position by footsoldiers. This tactic has enabled them to bombard Israel without the risk of being killed by massive return strikes on their rocket positions.

The idea of shooting down incoming missiles originated with Ronald Reagan's 1983 "Star Wars" initiative but proved over-ambitious. The US claimed to have shot down a high percentage of the six-ton Scud missiles fired at Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain in the 1991 Gulf War, with Patriot anti-missiles. In fact they did not.

Shooting down free-flight rockets lacking guidance systems is more difficult. Christopher Foss, editor of Jane's Armour and Artillery, said yesterday: "It's a very difficult technical and operational problem. You might be able to do it under laboratory conditions at the White Sands missile range in New Mexico but to do it in northern Israel in operational conditions is quite a different matter." The BM-21 rockets are 2.87m (9ft) long and weigh 66 kg overall. The warhead is little more than a 122mm artillery shell, weighing 20kg (44 lb). The rockets are, therefore, particularly difficult to intercept, especially as they are often fired in a low trajectory and at short range.

nWashington - The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will call on President Bill Clinton at the White House this week as Middle East peacemaking picks up speed, an administration official said yesterday, AP reports. Mr Arafat will follow theIsraeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, to Washington. The aim is to set the stage for successful negotiations when Israel and Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority open their final phase of talks about the future of the West Bank and Gaza in early May.

The soundbite diplomat, page 17