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US & Middle East (including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan): U.S. military pilots illuminated by lasers

From January through July 2018, American military pilots reported more than 350 laser illuminations in the Middle East, predominantly in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, according to an August 17 2018 article in the Wall Street Journal.

A spokesperson for U.S. Central Command told the paper that while the source is “exceedingly difficult to pinpoint … many likely come from insurgents and terrorist organizations.”

U.S. crews had no permanent injuries although minor effects such as short-term vision impairment and headaches were reported.

The Journal article did not indicate whether the laser illuminations were being coordinated, or if the perpetrators were using lasers of a different type or power than those commonly involved in illuminations of civilian aircraft outside of conflict zones.

Lasing rate comparison

For comparison with civil aviation, during the same January-July 2018 period American civilian pilots reported 3,182 laser illuminations to the Federal Aviation Administration. In Canada there were roughly 190 laser illuminations reported to Transport Canada, and in the U.K. there were roughly 500 laser illuminations reported to the Civil Aviation Authority.

The Middle East incidents appear to indicate a higher rate of lasing than two recent areas of concern recently disclosed by U.S. military:

  • In May 2018, a Pentagon spokesperson reported “between 2 and ten” lasers aimed at U.S. aircraft operating out of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.
  • From September 2017 to mid-June 2018, about two dozen aircraft in the East China Sea were illuminated by “smaller, commercial grade” laser pointers similar to those sold for pointing and playing with pets.

Laser incidents in the Middle East had been at about 700 in 2015, about 600 in 2016, and were at about 400 in 2017. At the current rate of about 50 per month in the first seven months of 2018, there would be about 600 incidents estimated for all of 2018.

From a Wall Street Journal article by reporter Gordon Lubold; the article is behind a paywall. A non-paywall (free) summary is at The Hill.

Commentary from LaserPointerSafety.com:
LPS editor Patrick Murphy was quoted in the Wall Street Journal article. Below are clarifications and additional information about the article and Murphy’s comments.

“Illuminations” is more accurate than “attacks” (in this case)

The U.S. military uses the term “laser attack”. To most people, “attack” implies intent to deliberately disrupt a flight or to cause harm.

In the Middle East cases, however, the military did not give an indication or proof of of these being deliberate or coordinated attacks.

Compare with the United States. In 2018 there were 6,753 reports from pilots of laser illuminations. That’s roughly 10 times the number of reports from U.S. pilots in the Middle East:

Pic 2018-08-21 at 4.36.58 PM

It is likely that few, if any, of the U.S. domestic incidents were from insurgents or terrorist organizations.

Similarly, it could be that the majority of the Middle East incidents are illuminations — not “attacks” — carried out for reasons similar to why Americans aim at aircraft. These include: 1) simple curiosity to see whether the beam can reach the aircraft, 2) because a person is annoyed by helicopter or aircraft noise and 3) because an antisocial person wants to annoy airborne police or authorities.

If a perpetrator’s reason is not known, better and more accurate terms are the neutral phrases “laser illumination,” “laser incident” or “laser aiming.” (The term “laser strike” can also be used, although this implies force such as being struck by an object. Laser light has no forceful impact — it is just bright light. For example, it is far better for an aircraft to have laser light shone at them, than to be struck by a bullet or missile.)

News accounts should avoid using “laser attack” unless it is clear that a perpetrator deliberately meant to cause disruption or damage.

“Eye effects” is more accurate than “injuries” (in this case)

The article states that the incidents “resulted in minor injuries, including short-term vision impairment and headaches.” In our view, an “injury” is a change to the eye or skin such as a thermal burn.

What the article listed was eye or body effects. Vision impairment (flashblindness, afterimages, glare) and headaches — while of concern — are not “injuries.”

[Technically, afterimages are not injuries since they are caused by saturation of rhodopsin or "bleaching" in the outer segments of photoreceptors that results in a localized reduced sensitivity. An eye injury results in a minimally visible lesion which histologically involves the retinal pigmented epithelium and the photoreceptors.]

“Cat laser” is cute; “military grade” is meaningless

The article uses the term “cat lasers.” This is a clever and not-generally-used term. It seems clear that it refers to laser pointers — that is, lasers sold as pointers or for pointing purposes. In the U.S., pointers must be below 5 milliwatts.

The article then uses the term “military grade” for higher powered lasers. As explained here, while some officials have been quoted as using this term, “military grade” has no definition or generally-accepted meaning except “more powerful than laser pointers.”

Supporting evidence for no documented eye injuries

The article quotes Murphy as saying “there are no documented or proven cases of permanent case [sic] of eye injury” in over 55,000 lasing incidents reported by civilian pilots since 2004. This is correct as of the date of the article in August 2018.

The U.S. FAA, U.K. CAA, and Transport Canada have all stated they know of no cases of permanent eye injuries to pilots. Details are in the “Laser pointer hazards - aviation” dropdown box on this page.

Also, laser/aviation safety experts have stated that a handheld laser causing permanent eye injury to a pilot in flight is extremely unlikely.

Laser hazard distances compared

The article quotes Murphy as saying that small, handheld lasers can cause flash blindness up to a mile, and vision-blocking glare at 5 miles away. These distances are for a 3 watt handheld with 1 milliradian divergence, emitting a green beam of 532 nanometers. This is about the most powerful handheld laser readily available to the public today.

The article then refers to “cat lasers” being a distraction up to 2 miles away. This distance is for a much lower power laser, 5 milliwatt (0.005 watts) laser pointer with 1 mrad divergence, emitting a green 532 nm beam. For and apples-to-apples comparison, the distraction distance of the 3W, 1mrad, 532nm laser would be 51 miles.

To do your own calculations of various powers, use the Laser Hazard Distance Calculator.

Laser interference hazards vary by color

The article quotes Murphy as saying that the most “damaging” laser pointers are green, because the eye sees the color green as the brightest. The word “damaging” is not correct, it should be “hazardous”.

Regarding damage, if you have lasers with equal power and divergence, but emitting visible beams of different colors, all of the lasers have the same damage potential for eyes and skin. However, lasers with green beams are more of a vision interference hazard, than equivalent lasers emitting other colors.

This is because the eye sees green light as brightest, compared to an equivalent amount of red, blue or other colored light:


Training for lasers in simulators

The article correctly states that pilots can train to manage laser incidents.

It quotes Murphy as saying pilots can be educated about laser illuminations “including using them inside flight simulators.” Actually, it is easier, safer and much less expensive to use low-cost green flashlights (as little as USD $20) in a simulator, to give pilots essentially the same effect as a laser illumination.

This recommendation is part of the pilot mitigation steps listed in ARP6378, an “Aerospace Recommended Practice” document published in June 2018.

Glare-protection glasses and screens

The article refers to glasses and screens (actually, a film applied to the inside of a cockpit windscreen) that can reduce the effects of laser light. These can work well against one, or a few, selected wavelengths of laser light.

LaserPointerSafety.com has summarized the pros and cons of using glasses and windscreen film.