UNITED STATES: Laser beam may blind people

Issue 

BY NORM DIXON

According to a report published in the July 27 New Scientist, US defence contractors are developing a laser weapon for fighter aircraft that may be powerful enough to blind people on the ground, even if they are relatively far from the target.

The 100-kilowatt infra-red laser, which is being developed for the F35 Joint Strike Fighter by defence companies Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, is far more powerful than any laser ever used in war. But because it is designed to attack targets, it is exempt from the Geneva Convention's 1996 ban on blinding weapons.

The Geneva Convention ban is riddled with loopholes that leave room for the proposed weapon. It only outlaws lasers explicitly designed to damage sight or cause permanent blindness, and overlooks blinding that might be caused incidentally. "That protocol was purposely drafted to avoid capturing other types of laser weapons systems", Stephen Goose of Human Rights Watch told New Scientist.

The laser weapon will be ready to test by around 2010 and could go into service by 2015. The weapon is designed to destroy ground targets such as communication lines, power grids, fuel dumps and could even target the fuel tanks on vehicles.

However, when the laser hits its target, the energy can be reflected in all directions, potentially blinding anyone nearby. If fired into the cockpit of a fighter jet, for instance, the infrared beam would pass through the canopy and strike the plane's electronics, reflecting random beams at the crew. If aimed at a person on the ground, the beam could be intense enough to burn skin, corneas and retinas.

"As with all weapons, there is potential for inflicting collateral damage", said Tom Burris, a scientist in the Lockheed Laser Program.

From Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002.
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