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Blinding laser weapons: questions and answers


 1. Aren't other weapons just as destructive? Why worry about blinding lasers?  

Over the last hundred years humanity has succeeded in banning the use of weapons which are considered unnecessarily cruel, such as poison, exploding bullets, chemical and biological weapons and weapons that primarily injure by fragments which cannot be located by x-rays. The criteria have been that these weapons cause superfluous injuries and/or unnecessary suffering for little military purpose.

Unlike some more powerful weapons, small arms are widely available and are used on a large scale in most modem conflicts. The widespread availability of blinding lasers could dramatically increase the long-term suffering caused by warfare. Soon after their proliferation on the battlefield, these lasers are likely to be used in internal armed conflicts in an indiscriminate fashion and also by terrorists and criminals.

 2. Isn't it better to blind than to kill?  

Weapons which are certain to kill, with no chance of survival, are already outlawed. It is on this basis that exploding bullets, poison and chemical weapons were prohibited. Sixty percent of war casualties both survive and fully recover over time. With blinding from lasers there would be no recovery and no prosthetic device can replace sight.

Blinding lasers would not actually save lives as they are intended to be used in addition to other weapons. They might even have the effect of increasing mortality rates as b linded opponents would not be able to defend themselves and thus be easily targeted by other weapons. As it is unlikely that an attacker would be able to assess at a distance whether an opponent has been rendered out of action by blinding, he would also use his other weapons. The result would therefore be just as many deaths and many more blind, thus increasing the suffering which results from battle.

Unlike other injuries, blinding results in very severe disability and near total dependence on others. Because sight provides us with some 80-90% of our sensory stimulation, blinding renders a person virtually unable to work or to function independently. This usually leads to a dramatic loss of self-esteem and severe psychological depression. Blinding is much more debilitating than most battlefield injuries.

Even if soldiers are not hit by lasers, the silent and invisible threat created by the presence or suspected presence of blinding lasers in an opponent's arsenal would increase the occurrence among soldiers of combat stress disorder and, later, of post-traumatic stress disorder.

 3. Aren't blinding lasers futuristic weapons which will be of little real concern for many years?  

No. A December 1990 report in Defense News, a U.S. 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 1100 anti-personnel lasers had been put into field tests. Other specialist magazines report that full scale manufacture could begin in the mid- I 990s with deployment following soon thereafter.

Lasers are already in widespread military use in range finders and target designators. Anti-sensor models, which could also be used against personnel, are a t an advanced stage of development. There are two types of " anti-sensor " lasers. One is said to be a vehicle-mounted system which scans the battlefield with a laser that is safe for eyesight, and when it touches an optical sensor (by recognising the glass), it automatically sends a powerful laser beam to destroy that sensor. Any person looking through binoculars would also be blinded. The other type of " anti-sensor " laser is hand-held and does not have such an automatic targeting device. These would require the manual targeting of sensors, which would be fairly difficult, whereas their use against persons would be very easy. This type may be referred to as a dual-use laser. Although most work on anti-personnel or dual-use lasers is now conducted in secret, the reports above have not been disputed by official sources.

 4. Doesn't the "high tech" nature of laser weapons mean that they will only become available to a few armed forces?  

Anti-personnel or dual-use lasers currently being considered for deployment are about the size of a normal rifle or a smaller laser that can be clipped onto a normal rifle. Recent developments in battery technology permit a soldier to carry a substantial power source for such lasers in a backpack. Once laser rifles or clip-on lasers are produced on a large scale in industrialized countries their proliferation will be virtually certain. Laser technology is already widely available and it would therefore be easy for many countries to copy the models they obtain.

Since these lasers will be small, easy to transport and easy to hide, they are likely to become a popular weapon for terrorists and criminal organizations. These same characteristics will make it extremely difficult to prevent illegal trade in laser weapons.

 5. Won't the use of anti-personnel lasers permit more precise targeting and thus save lives?  

Lasers can increase precision in battle, especially those used for range-finding or target acquisition. However there is nothing inherent in laser weapons which ensures their discriminate use or renders civilians safe from their effects.

Like normal rifles, anti-personnel or dual-use lasers can be used indiscriminately and against civilians, with devastating effects. At a distance of one kilometre these lasers can silently and invisibly scan a battlefield or group of civilians with a beam 50 centimetres or more in width. Anyone whose eyes were hit would be blinded, usually permanently. The potential for scanning makes indiscriminate use far easier and more tempting than with conventional rifles or artillery.

 6. Can the eyes be protected against lasers?  

Experts have tried for years to develop protective goggles, but without success. The problem is that goggles can only shield against lasers beams of known wavelengths. However, even portable lasers can be designed to fire at several wavelengths simultaneously or to cycle through a number of frequencies within less than a second. The result is that full protection would require goggles which block out all wavelengths and thereby make it impossible for the protected person to see.

At night, when the eye is particularly sensitive to light, a person can be tricked into looking in the direction of a laser. Relying on the human " attention reflex " , a potential victim will inevitably turn towards a flash of light. If this is followed by a laser pulse of sufficient energy, blinding will result.

The silence and invisibility of laser beams, which can blind in a millionth of a second, means that victims will not usua lly know of an attack until damage to the eye has already occurred. Even if protection were possible it would not shield against attacks of which one is unaware and it would probably not be available to the military in poorer countries or to civilians.

 7. Isn't laser damage to the eye treatable using modern surgical techniques?  

The eye magnifies light by between I 00,000 and 5 00,000 times and focuses it on the retina. As a result " low energy " lasers, which would not harm other body tissue, can totally destroy the central retina. When this happens there is no remedy and permanent blindness will result.

Surgery may be useful in some cases where only peripheral areas of the retina have been harmed. Even then eye surgeons must be available to operate within about 48 hours, using sophisticated equipment in totally sterile operating theatres, and success is not assured. In many countries such surgery is not available nor is it likely to be found on or near battlefields. Even in highly industrialized societies facilities for ophthalmological surgery are scarce.

 8. Can lasers be used only to "flash blind" or "dazzle" a person for a few minutes?  

Although flash blinding could occur, it is very difficult to achieve intentionally with lasers. The level of energy required to flash blind is so close to that which will leave a person permanently blind, that intentional flash blinding is virtually impossible in the theatre of war.

Flash blinding can only be consistently accomplished at night (when the eyes are sensitive to low levels of light) and when the energy level, distance, atmospheric pollution and angle of exposure are precisely controlled. In the daytime the level of light required will inevitably cause permanent blinding instead.

9. Would a prohibition on blinding as a method of warfare interfere with other legitimate military uses of laser technology?

No. Current proposals by the ICRC and Sweden to deal with the threat of blinding weapons prohibit only the use of blinding as a method of warfare. Such a norm would not impinge on the use of lasers in range finders and other devices nor the use of anti-materiel or purely anti-sensor lasers. In addition to its normative value, a rule against blinding would discourage the development, production and transfer of anti-personnel lasers or dual purpose anti-personnel/anti-sensor lasers. As anti-sensor lasers with devices that automatically target sensors already exist, it makes sense to avoid manual systems that could be so easily be used for anti-personnel purposes.

While some may argue that it is difficult to differentiate between intentional and accidental blinding (e.g. from the use of range finders) on the battlefield, this does not diminish the need for nor the value of an international norm against blinding. Many important rules of law confront the difficulty of distinguishing between intentional violations and accidental effects. For example, the rule prohibiting attacks on civilians is accepted as fundamental and yet incidental civilian casualties do occur which do not necessarily mean that the rule has been violated. This problem does not reduce the value of the rule itself. Further, the regular use of lasers for blinding will create a fear of lasers and will undermine the " clean " image that they now have.

The renunciation of anti-personnel lasers or dual-purpose anti-personnel/anti-sensor lasers would not remove an important military capability and any military advantage that they may have is outweighed by their very serious disadvantages.

 10. Can a ban on blinding be achieved?  

In August 1994 thirteen countries from four continents expressed support for a prohibition on blinding as a method of warfare, with a number of other States informally backing the proposal. This support emerged within the Group of Governmental Experts preparing amendments to the 1980 United Nations Convention. In September 1995 a Review Conference of States Parties to the 1980 U.N. Convention will be convened to consider amendments, which could include a new Protocol banning blinding as a method of war.

Public abhorrence at the use of poison gas in World War 1, in particular the sight of soldiers blinded by phosgene gas, led to the prohibition of chemical weapons in the 1925 Geneva Protocol. In 1995 both enlightened self interest and the dictates of public conscience should converge to outlaw intentional blinding in war.

An injunction against blinding requires neither lengthy negotiations nor detailed technical discussion. What is essential is an informed and insistent public which deems attacks on the eyesight to be a particularly cruel and unacceptable form of warfare.