Pentagon Charged With Developing Banned Laser Weapons
|(IPS) WASHINGTON — A prominent U.S. human rights group says that Pentagon efforts to develop laser weapons designed to “dazzle” enemy soldiers may weaken a new international ban on blinding lasers which became effective at the end of July.
In a letter to Defense Secretary William Cohen, Human Rights Watch (HRW) declared that ongoing research into a dazzling weapon raises serious questions about U.S. compliance with the spirit, if not the letter, of the new convention.
“The distinction between a dazzling laser and a blinding laser remains disconcertingly unclear,” according to the letter signed by the executive director of HRW’s Arms Division, Joost Hiltermann, which the organization released here.
“We fear that weapons labeled as dazzlers could easily be used to blind intentionally, and that weapons labeled as dazzlers will proliferate greatly throughout the world,” the letter said.
|Military lasers — and their possible non-lethal application — has been a focus of Pentagon research for many years. As international concern about their possible uses grew over the last 20 years, however, a number of countries led efforts to ban laser weapons designed to blind enemy soldiers.
In 1980, Sweden first tried to include a ban on blinding lasers in the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) and put forward a draft protocol for that purpose before key meetings in Vienna in 1995.
The Swedish draft, backed by some 30 nations, human rights groups and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), became Protocol IV of the CCW. The protocol took formal effect today following its ratification by 20 member countries.
When the protocol was first floated, the U.S. administration, acting at the behest of the Pentagon, immediately opposed it. Military planners were concerned that it could set a precedent for banning the use of lasers for other purposes and deprive soldiers of a potentially potent defense.
The Pentagon had been engaged in a number of research programs and was considering final approval for the production of an anti-personnel weapon called the Laser Countermeasure System as the CCW talks were being prepared. The System consisted of an 18-kg portable gun that, in the words of HRW consultant William Arkin, “fires a beam powerful enough to burn out human retinas” up to one kilometer away.
The aim of this and related systems is to counter surveillance or targeting measures by enemy forces using binoculars, gunners’ sights, and other optical devices such as infrared sensors. Rather than destroy the specific device that was being used, the laser system would blind the operator of the device as he looked through it.
On the eve of the Vienna negotiations, however, then-Pentagon chief William Perry quietly reversed the Pentagon’s position. He issued a new policy which banned “the use of lasers specifically designed to cause permanent blindness of un-enhanced vision and supports negotiations prohibiting the use of such weapons.” As a result, Washington actually played a key role in securing the adoption of Protocol IV, and a number of research programmes were cancelled.
Since then U.S. military officials have reassured rights and disarmament activists that the Pentagon was firmly committed to that course. Last August, for example, a top official stated that “no antipersonnel laser weapon being developed by the Department of Defense is designed to cause even temporary blindness.”
These assurances, however, were not enough for HRW, which remained concerned over the number of laser weapons still under development.
“Usually labeled as ‘dazzling’ or glare-producing lasers, they have as their primary function attacking human eyes, (and) are intended for anti-personnel missions.” the letter to Cohen said. “While these weapons may not violate the letter of Protocol IV, there is a real danger that the procurement of such weapons could render the blinding laser ban meaningless.”
It notes that some dazzling lasers described as “eyesafe” have been found by military health officials to damage parts of the eye, and that experts, including biophysicists, believe that any laser which can dazzle can also blind, depending on the circumstances in which it used.
|The United States is not alone in developing such weapons. As early as 1995, China was advertising a similar device as an antipersonnel weapon. A July 1996 U.S. intelligence report obtained by HRW found that “Russia leads the world in the development of laser blinding weapons” and that Jordan had already imported a laser dazzler.
The rights group lists nine dazzler programs which are currently being developed by the armed forces, some of which are simply modifications of those which were originally intended to produce blinding lasers. In addition, HRW said it was concerned that these lasers are already being offered to police agencies and may be available for commercial sale.
“In one notable example, a California-based company, Light Solutions, is reportedly developing a dazzling counter-terrorism ‘green laser’ for the Army on behalf of the U.S. Secret Service.
A secret “black” program, this laser is intended to defend the White House and other government buildings in Washington from someone who might employ a light plane or helicopter in an attack,” the group’s letter said.
Given these developments, HRW asked Cohen to provide additional details about existing laser programs, clarify the difference between blinding and dazzling lasers, and explain how the Pentagon will ensure that dazzling lasers are not used to blind, even temporarily.
It also wants top-level assurances that Washington is not trying to undermine either the letter or the spirit of Protocol IV.