Electronic Weapons: Lasers For Good Or Evil

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March 4, 2022: In February an Australian P-8A maritime patrol aircraft observed Chinese warships moving along the north Australian coast. When the P-8A went closer the Chinese destroyer aimed its laser at the aircraft, endangering any of the crew observing the ship and not wearing laser safety glasses. These laser safety glasses or goggles protect eyes from laser damage that will result in permanent blindness. Aircrew do not wear these laser safety goggles full time because they are rarely needed. Air forces dealing with Chinese warships often recommend or mandate that pilots put on the laser safety glasses or goggles when near Chinese warships. Fighter pilots can have laser safety added to flight helmet that features visors. The risk of temporary or permanent blindness from widely available laser technology has been around for two decades now but only China has enthusiastically, and illegally weaponized these lasers.

The Australian incident was not the first for P-8A pilots. In early 2020 China was accused of trying to disable an American P-8A by aiming a high-powered laser at the pilots getting a better look of a Chinese destroyer. The P-8 crew was alerted when one of its sensors detected the aircraft being hit with a laser. China denied any involvement but Chinese government- controlled mass media in 2019 and 2020 published articles promoting the use of laser devices against American aircraft that overfly parts of the South China Sea that China claims are now Chinese. International treaties and court rulings say otherwise but the Chinese openly ignore these treaties and court rulings. China increasingly talks of confronting trespassers with force.

Lasers have become common on military vehicles, aircraft and ships. Most military aircraft and armored vehicles have laser detection sensors as standard equipment. For armored vehicles, the laser detector alerts the crew that a range-finding or targeting laser has hit the vehicle, indicating that someone is about to fire on the tank either with laser-guided missiles or a tank main gun. Aircraft, ground units or ships can all use high-powered lasers to blind or disable some enemy sensors. This works both ways as some aircraft carry a laser-based missile protection system that uses high powered lasers to blind the heat-seeking sensor on some missiles that home in on the heat an aircraft gives off.

Since 2018 the U.S. military has been buying special laser eye protection visors (for helmets) or spectacles/goggles. These protect the pilot and other aircrew from eye injury and well as minimize the distracting effect of lasers. This was prompted by China aiming its military-grade lasers at American military aircraft flying over Chinese South China Sea bases as well as near a Chinese base in Djibouti (northeast Africa). There is also an older Franco-American base near the new Chinese base.

A more widespread threat is people using laser pointers aimed at aircraft landing. This sort of thing was first reported in the early 1990s when more powerful and longer-range laser pointers became available. There were only a few incidents a year of these lasers being pointed at landing aircraft. That changed in 2000 when the green light laser pointer became available. This was a new, more complex design capable of longer range. Because of the wide availability and low price (under $100) of these longer range (two kilometers) green light lasers, there were more incidents of people aiming the laser beam at aircraft landing, mainly at major airports. By 2009 there were 1,500 reported incidents a year. That grew to 2,800 in 2010 and 3,600 in 2011. Laws were passed with high fines and prison time for those caught doing this. The detection system made it easier to locate where the laser user was but these never became numerous or accurate enough to catch a lot of the offenders. News of the punishments and detectors scared off a lot of potential offenders but there are still several thousand incidents a year.

A common sight on American warships is a green-light laser that can be used to communicate between ships or discourage, or even temporarily blind, operators of small boats that get too close to the ship. The British were the first to equip their warships with these lasers and they were used during the 1982 Falkland Islands war against Argentine fighter pilots. Those British lasers were capable of blinding people at close range and that was one of the situations that led to a 1995 international treaty banning military use of lasers that permanently blinded people. Most nations have observed that treaty but a notable exception is China, which equips its warships with a more powerful laser that can cause permanent blindness under some conditions. These lasers are regularly used against foreign patrol aircraft.

Laser pointers were initially developed as pointing devices and became popular with teachers and anyone giving a presentation. These were “eye safe” green lasers and by 2005 U.S. troops in Iraq discovered that the green laser pointer could be used to force oncoming drivers to halt. These were the same commercial pointers that were causing problems near airports. In warzones it was different and an inexpensive eye-safe laser with a range of about two kilometers saved lives. Eventually, the U.S. Army bought them in bulk and distributed them to troops manning checkpoints or base entrances. By 2006 green lasers were mounted on M-4 assault rifles in place of the grenade launcher under the barrel, to make it easier to aim at the driver of an oncoming vehicle.

The U.S. Department of Defense also began developing more capable laser devices and encouraged commercial firms to manufacture them for the military. This led to such popular devices as the LA-9/P in 2010. This device can be mounted on a rifle, or simply a rifle stock, and used by individuals. The LA-9/P weighs less than a kilogram (1.6 pounds) and is powered by three AA batteries. This device is visible up to 1,500 meters in daylight and 4,000 meters at night. At 500 meters the LA-9/P can dazzle or blind, which is especially effective against operators of small boats. The LA-9/P can be set to disable the dazzle/blinding option if it is not needed.

Another 2010 laser tech development was a U.S. Army green laser “dazzler” device. This was used in Afghanistan, mounted in the CROWS RWS (remotely controlled gun turret) found in many hummers and most armored vehicles. The main function of the dazzler was to get vehicles approaching checkpoints at high speed to stop. Troops don’t know if an approaching vehicle, especially at night, was a suicide bomber or a driver simply seeking to buzz past the check point. Without the dazzler, the only option is to open fire. This often gets civilians killed. Most Afghans don’t appreciate the security aspect, and believe a driver has the right to try and speed past a checkpoint. The dazzler can also be used on hostile gunmen to ruin their aim.

These new American lasers were called GLEF (Green Laser Escalation of Force). Unlike the earlier handheld green lasers, GLEF, when mounted in CROWS, were easier to aim and use, including the ability to have the machine-gun (mounted next to the laser) fire if the dazzled target turns out to be hostile.

Similar green lasers have been around for a while. In 2009 Canada bought 750 similar VWT (Visual Warning Technology) systems, for about $7,500 each. These are eye safe (they won't blind you permanently) green laser pointers mounted in a weather proof, articulated enclosure, that enables the troops to operate the laser remotely, to flash the laser light at oncoming drivers, to get them to stop at checkpoints or other locations.

Unlike urban Iraq, where information gets around quickly, the Canadians in Afghanistan also launched a publicity campaign there to get people, especially those in rural areas where the troops operate, informed about the green lasers. Even if people don't get the message, they will know enough to hit the brakes if they get an eye full of green laser.

Warships most often use the LA-9/P just to warn small boats away to avoid collision or to keep them outside of a security zone. On land the special laser dazzlers are used to blind the fire control systems of hostile armored vehicles. Yet the most common use of the eye-safe lasers is still as an alternative to opening fire with bullets from checkpoints or aboard ships.

Using lasers that temporarily disorient a pilot or cause permanent blindness is another matter, especially if the aircraft is landing or operating in a non-threatening fashion. This is less of a problem for pilots who must wear flight helmets. But pilots of large, multi-engine aircraft do not wear flight helmets and find wearing laser safety goggles all the time a nuisance that protects pilots on very rare occasions. The Chinese exploit that, violating the 1995 treaty by insisting that each incident where a ship laser was aimed at large aircraft pilots was an accident while demanding punishment if any other nation does the same to Chinese pilots.

 


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