How the US Quietly Field Tests 'Blinding' Laser Weapons

With apologies to the UN.

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Sep 17 2014, 11:00am

PHaSR Rifle. Image: US Air Force

Laser warfare is pretty much here. We've got lasers on Navy ships and Army trucks, on guided missiles, and one just got test-mounted on an airplane. And obviously, someday there will be lasers on drones. But as any military contractor should remember: no eye stuff.

In 1995 the United Nations banned "Blinding Laser Weapons," which the adopted protocol defined as "laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision" and, in the same protocol, stipulated that, in the employment of laser systems, "the High Contracting Parties shall take all feasible precautions to avoid the incidence of permanent blindness to unenhanced vision." 

That "unenhanced vision" qualification allows for vehicle-mounted weapons that scan the battlefield for optical sensors with a harmless laser, and then destroy them. If one of those anti-sensor weapons came across, say, someone using binoculars, that person would be blinded. Only the blinding experienced by that person with the binoculars would appear to be acceptable under this law.

Straight-forward enough, it seems. But apparently this stipulation bears repeating. Former laser journalist Dan Drollette Jr. explained in an analysis piece in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that, even after giving up plans to build blinding laser weapons, the US military continued researching them:

While I was an editor at a laser magazine in the early 2000s, my colleagues and I attended a year-round litany of multi-day conferences on the latest developments in lasers—and usually found Air Force researchers there, including those in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Biometrics at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Modesto, California. In interviews in the year 2000, they said that technically speaking, they were researching with the aim of protecting America's soldiers in the field from getting blinded by lasers, and doing so required them to study the precise laser settings that would cause the most damage to the human cornea. 

It's fortunate for the US military, so worried about the most damaging possible lasers, that the organization that had the most advanced laser weapons was the US military. 

According to a 1994 International Committee of the Red Cross anti-blinding laser weapon FAQ, "a December 1990 report in Defense News, a US military journal, indicated that field tests had already been conducted on 'two hand-held laser weapons that could be used to blind enemy troops.' In February 1993 another journal, Defense Electronics, reported that 1,100 anti-personnel lasers had been put into field tests." 

It's weird that laser weapons have been on the verge of adoption for so long that people have jokingly called them "five years out and always will be," but then it's much easier to build a laser that can fry a retina than it is to build one that can fry a drone or a boat.

It's also easier to fry a retina than temporarily "dazzle" one. Even though Human Rights Watch stated in a 1995 report that "many medical and military experts believe it is not possible to design a laser that can only temporarily blind or dazzle," because it's such a fine line that wavers due to variables such as weather and distance, the military has kept working at the dazzling, temporarily-blinding weapons. This is why Drollette is so worried.

It's much easier to build a laser that can fry a retina than it is to build one that can fry a drone or a boat.

Lasers that were supposed to temporarily blind were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan by both American and British troops, with somewhat spotty results. Wired reported that in 2009 an American soldier "was blinded in one eye and three others required medical evacuation out of Iraq in a series of laser 'friendly fire' incidents," which highlights just how difficult it is to use the lasers, like the one pictured above, as their manufacturers imply they should be used: as tools that keep things from escalating, as tools or weapons that make everyone—the person holding the laser and the person in its line of sight—safer. 

A Canadian think tank called for a review of dazzler weapons in 2007, after concerns surfaced that laser weapons weren't being properly vetted to prevent war crimes.

Given that "dazzling" weapons are also being advertised as something that should be sold directly to SWAT teams—not to mention concerns about military surplus being sold to local law enforcement that were substantiated over the summer—Drollette's concerns seem well-founded. 

Missile-hunting lasers being fitted on Israeli airliners and laser pointers blinding airline pilots are getting the press, but the UN appears to be getting ignored.