Weapons Law Encyclopedia

Blinding laser weapons

One of the first military applications of laser technology came in the mid-1960s when lasers were used to determine the distance to a target. From the 1970s, some states, including the United States of America (USA), the then Soviet Union, China, France, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Germany began developing ‘battlefield’ or ‘tactical’ laser weapons with anti-personnel potential, and in some cases, explicitly intended for anti-personnel use.Human Rights Watch Arms Project, U.S. Blinding Laser Weapons, May 1995, 7.

Some of these systems are reported to have been tested, deployed and even used in the past. The United Kingdom allegedly deployed prototypes of blinding laser weapons in the Falkland/Malvinas war in 1982, which may have led to some losses of Argentine aircraft in that conflict. The Soviet Union deployed laser devices on certain warships and ground-based laser weapons throughout the air defence network during the1980s for blinding NATO pilots.B. Anderberg et al., 'Blinding Laser Weapons and International Humanitarian Law', 29(3) (1992) Journal of Peace Resarch, 287; N. Cook, 'Chinese Laser 'Blinder' Weapon for Export ', Jane's Defence Weekly, 27 May 1995. The USA is said to have fielded five tactical laser weapons,including ‘Stingray’ prototypes in the 1991 Gulf War, and the ‘Saber 203’ in Somalia.Human Rights Watch Arms Project, U.S. Blinding Laser Weapons, May 1995, 11.

Last updated on: 08 August 2017

A wide range of laser weapons and laser systems (as well as non-laser optical systems) are in military use. So-called ‘blinding’ laser weapons are low energy, ‘battlefield’ or ‘tactical’ laser weapons, which can be distinguished from directed energy weapons that use high-energy laser weapon systems, such as in the context of ballistic missile defence; and from laser systems used as rangefinders, target designators, simulation systems, and guidance systems, where the laser itself is not used to inflict harm.

Various types of blinding laser weapons have been fielded in the past by several countries.

Several types of blinding laser weapons have been fielded by the USA in the past. Among them is the Laser Countermeasure System (LCMS) developed by Lockheed-Martin. It is a one-person portable, manually operated, shoulder-fired, battery-powered Class IV system mounted on an M-16 rifle. According to the producer, the LCMS has an effective range of two kilometres. At maximum range it would dazzle the opponent. At one kilometre or less, the laser can cause permanent eye injury, including blindness. Full-scale production of the LCMS was stopped and the programme reportedly terminated in 1996.

The Saber 203 Grenade Shell Laser Intruder Countermeasure System uses a 40mm M-203 grenade launcher attached to an M-16 rifle. When fired, the high-brightness diode laser grenade causes glare and flash blinding.

The Stingray, developed by Martin Marietta Electronics and Missiles Group, is integrated into the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and designed to detect, track and counter optical and electro-optical devices on tanks, combat vehicles and other ground and airborne systems. The system operates in three modes – automatic, semi-automatic or manual mode.

The Dazer is a portable rifle-like, shoulder-fired, non-scanning, manually operated tactical laser weapon, which employs a near infrared spectrum alexandrite laser beam.

Other US laser weapon types developed in the past include the Cobra by McDonnell-Douglas Electronic Systems Co., Coronet Prince (ALQ-179) by Westinghouse Electric Corp., Compass Hammer (secret US Air Force programme), Cameo Bluejay (Lockheed Sanders), and the Perseus Optical Munition by the Los Alamos National Laboratory.Human Rights Watch Arms Project, U.S. Blinding Laser Weapons, May 1995, 8-14.

The UK has deployed the Laser Dazzle Sight (LDS) or Outfit DEC on ships since the early 1980s. It is intended to produce a dazzling effect on the pilots of a targeted aircraft or helicopter, and has reportedly also been fielded in tanks and armoured vehicles. Although designed to inflict only temporary loss of vision, it could, depending on distance and power used, result in permanent blindness.B. Anderberg et al., 'Blinding Laser Weapons and International Humanitarian Law', 29(3)(1992) Journal of Peace Resarch, 287.

The ZM-87 is a Chinese electro-optic countermeasure neodymium laser device that was produced by Norinco. It is mounted on a tripod and resembles a heavy machine gun. It was reportedly withdrawn from the market, but according to reports in the media it is possible that the weapon was sold to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea between 2002 and 2008.For more information, see, L. Doswald-Beck, 'New Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons', 312(1996) International Review of the Red Cross; N. Cook, 'Chinese Laser 'Blinder' Weapon for Export ', Jane's Defence Weekly, 27 May 1995; T. Lister, 'North Korea's military aging but sizeable', CNN World, 24 November 2010.

'Battlefield' laser systems and dazzlers

Since the adoption of CCW Protocol IV, there have been no reports of use of laser weapons that fall within the definition of blinding laser weapons under CCW Protocol IV. However, most range-finders and target designators operate at wavelengths that are dangerous to the human eye. Accidental or incidental eye injury, including blindness, can result from the use of such laser systems, as well as from anti-sensor laser weapons, and of laser weapons intended to impair vision temporarily, that do not fall within the prohibition of the Protocol. Laser systems that can dazzle at a certain distance, may permanently blind at closer range or with longer exposure. It is not possible to design a laser that can only temporarily blind or dazzle.J. Marshall, 'Blinding laser weapons: Still available on the battlefield', 315(1997) British Medical Journal, 1392. Due to the perceived military efficiency of laser applications, it is likely that proliferation of such systems will continue, increasing the risk of eye injury and blindness among combatants and civilians.See, for instance, US DOD Policy on Blinding Lasers, 17 January 1997. For a summary of low- and medium-powered laser applications by the US military, see Defense Science Board Task Force on Directed Energy Weapons, Final Report, December 2007, 11-14.

Laser dazzlers for law enforcement

Lasers-based optical incapacitation devices ('dazzlers') are not confined to military applications. Several blinding laser weapon types were conceived, at the time, for use in armed conflict as well as in law enforcement situations. Notably, the 'Saber 203' , 'Outrider Combat Protection System', and 'LCMS' were advertised for use in a variety of law enforcement scenarios.See, Human Rights Watch Arms Project, U.S. Blinding Laser Weapons, May 1995, citing Lockheed Sanders, 'Laser Countermeasure System (LCMS) Fact Sheet', 1994; 'Fact Sheet from the US Air Force', Air Force Materiel Command, Office of Public Affiars, Phillips Laboratory, 'Saber 203 Grenade Shell Laser Introuder coutnermeasure System', (undated); Martin Marietta Fact Sheet, 'Outrider Combat Protection System', 1994. Today, laser dazzlers are making inroads into law enforcement as so-called 'non-lethal' force options, raising concerns about eye injury, even permanent blindness, resulting from their use.See, for instance, J. Hecht, 'Should police and coastguards use laser dazzlers?', New Scientist, 13 February 2012.

Last updated on: 08 August 2017

‘Laser’ is an acronym of ‘light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation’. Laser radiation consists of an intense stream of electromagnetic waves which are said to be ‘coherent’ in that they have the same frequency, phase, and direction of motion.

Laser weapons can take different forms, ranging from small man-portable devices to large vehicle-mounted systems. The effects on the target and the range at which they can cause injury varies with the technology employed and the wavelength, energy pulse duration, and power levels. Lasers operating at in-band wavelengths are within the visible and near-infrared range, approximately 400–1,400 nanometres. Laser operating at out-of-band wavelengths are within the far-infrared and ultraviolet ranges.

'Tactical' or 'battlefield' laser weapons can deliver terawatts of power to remote line-of-sight targets at the speed of light (approximately 300 million metres per second).J. Marshall, 'Blinding laser weapons: Still available on the battlefield', 315(1997) British Medical Journal, 1392. A distinction has been proposed between anti-personnel laser weapons and anti-material systems. The former are specifically designed to damage human eyesight. The latter employ an output beam of such intensity and power that damage is done to materiel remote from the system. The stated purpose of anti-sensor systems is to counter battlefield surveillance by disrupting optical and electro-optical devices, including binoculars, gunner's sights, and infrared sensors. They have for this reason also been called anti-material weapons. However, to the extent that anti-sensor laser weapons do not aim at the physical destruction of the optical device itself, but work primarily by attacking the eyes of the person using the device, they are essentially antipersonnel in nature.Human Rights Watch Arms Project, U.S. Blinding Laser Weapons, May 1995, 5.

The foremost humanitarian concern raised by low-energy laser weapons is the risk of permanent blindness. The eye magnifies light between 100,000 and 500,000 times and focuses it on a small spot on the retina. This greatly amplifies the laser intensity and can lead to thermal burns and the rupture of blood vessels leading to ocular damage. The human eye is vulnerable to optical radiation at wavelengths between about 400 and 1,400 nanometres (in-band wavelength lasers).

The impact on the eye can be dazzle, after-image formation, flash blindness, and irreversible damage leading to permanent blindness. Lasers operating at out-of-band wavelengths can also cause extremely painful injuries. Depending on the exposure time, certain lasers can burn skin, cloth and other materials.

According to Barkana and Belkin, military laser injuires are more likely to affect both eyes with severe visual consequences, compared to injuries resulting from civilian laser applications. This is in part 'because of the outdoor nature of the accidents, involving a beam that has diverged significantly from the source' and because some military laser devices produce a beam that is already a few centimeters wide at its origin. 'Because of the high pulse repetition rate of military lasers, the retinal lesions are also likely to be multifocal. In this regard, an initial lesion at the periphery might lead to macular injury because of the instinctive tendency of the victim to turn his or her head toward the light source.Y. Barkana, M. Belkin, 'Laser Eye Injuries', 44(6)(2000) Survey of Ophthalmology, 459-478. Cases of eye injury resulting from military laser systems are discussed in Y. Barkana, M. Belkin, 'Laser Eye Injuries', 44(6)(2000) Survey of Ophthalmology and in M. D. Harris et al., 'Laser Eye Injuries in Military Occupations', 74(9)(2003) Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine.

If the central and most sensitive area of the retina, the fovea, is destroyed, there will be no recovery and there is no prosthetic device that can replace sight. Even in cases where ophthalmological surgery could be a remedy, the highly specialised medical resources that would be immediately required are rare in peacetime and unlikely to be available in situations of armed conflict.

Laser weapons are silent and victims will not usually know of an attack until the damage to the eye has already occurred. Irreversible blindness can occur over distances of up to several kilometers from the source of the laser beam within a fraction of a second. Lasers using wavelengths below the visible range are particularly hazardous, since the eye’s blink reflex is triggered only by visible light. Effective protection against laser beams is virtually impossible because many laser devices switch wavelengths between pulses. The deployment of laser systems capable of blinding is likely to increase combat stress in soldiers, as well as fear and post-traumatic stress disorder among all potentially at risk.For a brief introduction, see ICRC, 'Blinding laser weapons: questions and answers', 16 November 1994. For a more detailed discussion, see ICRC, Blinding Weapons: Reports of the Meetings of Experts Convened by the International Committee of the Red Cross on Battlefield Laser Weapons, 1989-1991, 1993.

In addition to the intense pain and psychological suffering, the incidence of permanent damage and the severity of the resulting impairment also raise longer-term health and socio-economic concerns. Blinding is a severe and debilitating form of injury as sight provides us with 80–90% of our sensory stimulation and organises the other senses. Newly blind persons are almost totally dependent on others. They are likely to suffer dramatic loss of self-esteem and emotional distress. Survivors will require rehabilitation, counselling and training. Most of them will not return to their jobs after the end of the conflict. Instead, they are likely to require sustained, perhaps life-long, assistance.

Last updated on: 08 August 2017

Applicable international, regional & national law

1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

The 1980 Conventional Weapons Convention (CCW), also known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention, is an umbrella convention containing general provisions. Restrictions and prohibitions on particular weapons, such as blinding lasers, incendiary weapons, and mines are contained in protocols annexed to the Convention.

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1995 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons

The 1995 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons (Protocol IV to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons) prohibits use of blinding laser weapons as a means or method of warfare as well as their transfer, to any state or non-state actor.

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