A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use
Laser blinding weapons
There are three primary uses of lasers as blinding (temporary or permanent) weapons. These are described below. In addition, these three links to News pages here at LaserPointerSafety.com list news items relating to laser blinding weapons:
- Aviation-related incidents tagged with “Blinding weapons”
- Non-aviation incidents tagged with “Blinding weapons”
- Other news items tagged with “Blinding weapons”, “Dazzler” or “Satellite blinding”
Laser light can be used in crowd control and military operations to dazzle or temporarily flashblind. A key safety point is to ensure the light is not bright enough to do permanent damage. One method is to use an eye-safe rangefinder to determine the laser-to-eye distance, and then set the laser power so it dazzles but does not damage. One weapon like this is the Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response, or “PHaSR” laser weapon developed by the U.S. Air Force.
PHaSR photo from April 2006 Air Force information sheet
A good overview of laser dazzlers is an April 2013 article by Jeff Hecht in Laser Focus World magazine, “Photonic Frontiers: Nonlethal lasers deter attacks and warn away noncombatants.” Hecht wrote a similar article in March 2012, “Laser dazzlers are deployed.”
Also, see the three links at the top of this page for selected news items about laser dazzler equipment and use.
Laser weapons (anti-personnel, to damage eyes)
In warfare, lasers could be used to blind enemy troops. This is partially addressed by the 1995 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons has been signed by 99 countries, including the U.S., as of Feb. 2011. It prohibits the use of lasers to cause permanent blindness. The full text of the protocol is:
- Article 1: It is prohibited to employ laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision, that is to the naked eye or to the eye with corrective eyesight devices. The High Contracting Parties shall not transfer such weapons to any State or non-State entity.
- Article 2: 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. Such precautions shall include training of their armed forces and other practical measures.
- Article 3: Blinding as an incidental or collateral effect of the legitimate military employment of laser systems, including laser systems used against optical equipment, is not covered by the prohibition of this Protocol.
- Article 4: For the purpose of this protocol "permanent blindness" means irreversible and uncorrectable loss of vision which is seriously disabling with no prospect of recovery. Serious disability is equivalent to visual acuity of less than 20/200 Snellen measured using both eyes.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has published a detailed history of the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons’ 15-year development. It includes descriptions of two laser weapons that could blind combatants, the Chinese Norinco “Portable Laser Disturber” and the US “Laser Countermeasure System” (LCMS). It also discusses the intent and limitations of the four Articles. As the history notes:
“There can be no doubt that Protocol IV represents a major achievement. It is the first time since 1868 that a weapon has been prohibited before it has been used on the battlefield. It has also stigmatized deliberate blinding. Although the Protocol does not contain a simple prohibition of blinding as a method of warfare, there can be no doubt that it was adopted because of the concern felt about a weapon designed to be aimed at eyesight…. [T]his Protocol represents a victory of civilization over barbarity.”
Bowing to anti-blinding pressure, the US in October 1996 ended development of the Laser Countermeasure System.
LaserPointerSafety.com does not know the current (2011) status of weapons intended to blind enemy troops.
Carnahan, Burrus. Unnecessary Suffering, the Red Cross and Tactical Laser Weapons. September 1 1996. Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Review.
Resnick, Brian. A Brief History of Militarized Lasers, December 12 2014, National Journal.
Laser weapons (anti-sensor, to disable or damage optics)
Lasers can be used against optical systems, to prevent cameras or detectors from operating correctly. For example, a laser could be aimed at an orbiting satellite when it comes in range of a classified area. If the laser beam power is strong enough, the sensor could be permanently damaged.
Similar damage happens in non-military settings such as at laser light shows, and with laser experimenters. Camera sensors or video projector chips (DLP) can be damaged by direct beams into the lens. At one show, a dozen expensive Barco R18 video projectors were hung lower during a laser show than they had been during rehearsal. All 12 were damaged by laser light; the total cost was well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars (as described in an ILDA Members-Only webpage).
See the News links above (at the top of the page) to find selected articles about laser use against sensors, such as anti-satellite lasers claimed to have been used by China and Iran.