Jewish Journal

Dr.Josef (“Yossi”) Shwartz and Laser Air and Missile Defense

by Micha Keynan

January 3, 2011 | 1:04 am

Dr Yossi Shwartz and his team with the Nautilus system

By:מיכה קינן
In 1944, when Yossi Shwartz was five years old, he huddled with his parents during a Luftwaffe air attack in an improvised Bucharest bomb shelter.  He turned to them and pleaded, “We have to get out of here, or we’ll all get killed.”  His parents heeded the warning and dashed towards a proper shelter.  When they emerged two days later, they were stunned to see that the shelter they had abandoned had taken a direct hit.  They never forgot this incident.  Nor did Yossi.  He spent most of his adult life developing air defense systems.

Born to a Jewish family in 1939, Yossi’s chances of surviving the German occupation of Eastern Poland in 1942.  When the Germans came to their small town, Yossi’s father sent his three children into the woods to hide, and later joined them with his wife. The Shwartz family stayed one step ahead of the Germans for three more years. They survived by crossing borders, buying false papers, and using assumed names.  One morning, the family story goes, Yossi woke up on a train and asked, “Can you please tell me what my name is today?”

By the end of the war the Shwartz family was still intact, but without a home.  They were determined to make their way to Palestine.  At that time, the British were limiting the number of Jews granted entry.  Yossi’s father managed to purchase the necessary documents from a Czech man who had fought with the British, acquiring the right to settle anywhere within the British Empire.  The family sailed from Marseille, France, in June of 1947 and entered Israel on assumed identity papers and names.

Settled in Israel, life was good for Yossi.  After five years of hiding, he could play out in the open and go to school.  His name was the same every morning and his childhood could now begin.

In 1948, the Arab armies attacked the new state of Israel from all sides.  Tel Aviv was exposed to aerial attack by the Egyptian Air Force and one bomb landed near Yossi’s home, blasting a hole in the road and killing the butcher’s donkey.  The bombing rekindled Yossi’s memories of the aerial attacks in Bucharest three years earlier.  The idea of an impenetrable air defense umbrella started to form in his mind.

Yossi’s strengths in math and science made engineering a natural choice for him.  After high school, he was a part of an elite program that sent graduates directly to college before their compulsory military service.  Yossi chose to study aeronautical engineering at the Technion in Haifa and later earned his Ph.D. at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts.  In 1970 he returned to the Technion to teach aeronautical engineering, rising quickly to the rank of a tenured associate professor.

At that time lasers (light amplification of stimulated emission of radiation) were a new idea and no high power lasers were in use anywhere in the world.  Yossi wanted to create a laser defense system that uses high power lasers to neutralize air attacks. He worked on these ideas at the Technion, conducting both theoretical and laboratory research, and later on, while a tenured associate professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, he built what is still today the world’s most powerful solar-powered laser.

On a sabbatical from the Technion, Yossi decided to continue his laser work at the TRW Corporation (later acquired by Northrop Grumman), which is the world’s leader in the research and development of high power lasers.  His sabbatical was extended several times, and Yossi took on increasing responsibility with TRW, focusing his research on laser systems for air and missile defense. Being well aware of Israel’s critical and immediate need for such systems to defend against the rocket attacks that the Hezbollah was raining down on Israel almost daily from Lebanon, he worked hard to bring together Israeli and American laser research and development groups, from both corporate and military organizations, to work on a defensive laser system.

His efforts were crowned in 1993 with a Memorandum of Agreement between the US Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command and the Israeli Ministry of Defense.  The two countries agreed to jointly develop Nautilus, a test program that would demonstrate the feasibility of shooting down a Katyusha rocket in mid-air with a laser beam.

After Yossi’s research team performed extensive studies of laser-materials interactions and the effects of laser beams on rocket warheads, the Nautilus project culminated in February, 1996, at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, with the first-ever shoot-down of a Katyusha rocket in mid-flight. Yossi’s team used an existing laser facility at the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range for this demonstration.  The laser demonstration generated great interest in Israel and in the United States, especially in light of Hezbollah’s intensifying rocket attacks on Israel at that time, threatening to destabilize the region.

In 1996, the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, signed an agreement with President Bill Clinton to jointly develop a laser project whose objective was “to evaluate the effectiveness of high energy lasers in negating the Katyusha rocket threat.” This project was named the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD). In Israel the media continued to call it “Nautilus.”

Initiated in July 1996, THEL progressed with remarkable speed, going from a design concept to a full-fledged field demonstration in under four years. The prototype was built to be transportable so that it could be moved to an Israeli test site after being tested in the US. It was also designed to be operational so that Israel could position it to actually shoot down incoming rockets.

” title=“Nautilus laser weapon test” target=“_blank”>Nautilus laser weapon test

On June 6, 2000, the THEL/Nautilus laser weapon prototype successfully shot down its first Katyusha rocket in mid-flight.  This was followed by an extensive series of tests in which the system successfully shot down numerous Katyusha rockets, larger caliber and longer-range rockets, artillery canon shells, and mortar projectiles.  All of these successes were achieved under realistic operational conditions, in single and in salvo raids, including surprise attack scenarios.

The “effectiveness of high energy lasers in negating the Katyusha rocket threat,” as required by the Clinton-Peres agreement, was amply demonstrated and the terms of the agreement were met.  Yossi and his team had found a new way to protect civilians from bombs that fall from the sky.

They then worked vigorously to convince the government of Israel to transition this program from a demonstration to actual production, acquisition and deployment. They briefed the Israeli minister of defense and his staff, they briefed several other ministers, and also made two presentations to the Knesset Defense and Foreign Relations Committee. To date Israel has not yet decided whether it should acquire laser defense systems.

In December 2009, Yossi retired from Northrop Grumman, but he continues to consult with high-tech companies in the United States and in Israel.  In the fall of 2011 he plans to return to the Technion to introduce a new generation of engineers to the art and science of high power laser engineering, so that they can chart the future course of laser weapons development.

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Israeli Army Military Reporter at Bamachane. UCLA B.A. Economics, marketing programming M Graduate School Technion (Israel institute of technology)
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