Air Weapons: August 1, 2002

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The 24 July edition of the New Scientist reported that the 100-kilowatt infrared laser weapon American defense contractors are developing for the F35 Joint Strike Fighter may be powerful enough to blind people on the ground, even if they are relatively far from the intended target. Laser-armed strike fighters will be ready to test by around 2010 and could be sent into battle as early as 2015.

The author makes a point of noting that if the laser is accidentally aimed at a person on the ground, the beam could fall onto a spot just 30 centimeters across - which would be intense enough to burn skin, corneas and retina. What the typically alarmist article fails to state is that errant machinegun or cannon projectiles could also harm people on the ground, even if they are relatively far from the intended target. For those unaware of the realities of combat, it's called 'collateral damage' and it's been happening since the first caveman's rock missed it's intended target.

But because it is designed to attack targets such as other fighter aircraft, ground vehicles and anti-aircraft batteries, the airborne laser is exempt from the Geneva Convention's ban (was ratified by the US in 1999) on blinding weapons. Article 1states "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." However, Article 3 states that "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". 

Meanwhile, the Chinese have been developing their own laser weapons in apparent direct contravention of the Geneva Convention. The Type 98 Main Battle Tank's turret-mounted laser system is very similar to a tripod-mounted laser weapon seen for the first time at a 1995 arms exhibition in Manila. Identified as the "Laser Interference Device," it matched the description of a known Chinese laser weapon called the ZM-87. According to promotional information, one of the ZM-87's major uses is to "injure or dizzy targeted individuals." The ZM-87 can reportedly injure the human eye at 1.2 to 1.8 miles (2-3 kms) or over 3 miles (5 kms) using a 7-power magnification device. Additionally, short-term "flaring blindness" can be inflicted on the human eye at ranges up to 6 miles (10 kms). 

Beijing is also actively pursuing bigger and better laser technology. In August 2001, scientists at the Shanghai Optical and Fine Mechanics Institute announced that they had successfully generated 15 trillion watts of electrical power in 0. 035 picoseconds (one picosecond equals one trillionth of a second), on an optical platform of less than 10 square meters. - Adam Geibel


 


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