Electronic Weapons: Lasers At Work

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April 1, 2020: Once more China is accused of hitting American aircraft with high powered lasers. The latest incident, the first time China did this against a U.S. Navy aircraft, involved a P-8 maritime patrol aircraft flying near a Chinese destroyer. The P-8 crew was alerted when one of its sensors detected the aircraft being hit with a laser. China denied any involvement but Chinese government controlled mass media are currently talking openly of using EW (electronic warfare) and laser devices against American aircraft the overfly parts of the South China Sea that China claims are now Chinese. International treaties and court rulings say otherwise but the Chinese openly ignore these treaties and court rulings. China increasingly talks of confronting trespassers with force.

Lasers have become very common on military vehicles, aircraft and ships. Most military aircraft and armored vehicles have laser detection sensors as standard equipment. For armored vehicles, the laser detector alerts the crew that a range-finding or targeting laser has hit the vehicle, indicating that someone is about to fire on the tank either with laser-guided missiles or a tank main gun. Aircraft, ground units or ships can all use high-powered lasers to blind or disable some enemy sensors. This works both ways as some aircraft carry a laser-based missile protection system that uses high powered lasers to blind the heat-seeking sensor on some missiles that homes in on the heat an aircraft gives off.

Since 2018 the U.S. military has been buying special laser eye protection visors (for helmets) or spectacles/goggles. These protect the pilot and other aircrew from eye injury and well as minimize the distracting effect of lasers. This was prompted by China aiming its military-grade lasers at American military aircraft flying over illegal Chinese South China Sea bases as well as near a legal Chinese base in Djibouti (northeast Africa). There is also an older Franco-American base near the new Chinese base.

A more widespread threat is people using laser pointers aimed at aircraft landing. This sort of thing was first reported in the early 1990s when more powerful and longer-range laser pointers became available. There were only a few incidents a year of these lasers being pointed at landing aircraft. That changed in 2000 when the green light laser pointer became available. This was a new, more complex design capable of longer range. Because of the wide availability and low price (under $100) of these longer range (two kilometers) green light lasers, there were more incidents of people aiming the laser beam at aircraft landing, mainly at major airports. By 2009 there were 1,500 reported incidents a year. That grew to 2,800 in 2010 and 3,600 in 2011. Laws were passed with high fines and prison time for those caught doing this. The detection system made it easier to locate where the laser user was but these never became numerous or accurate enough to catch a lot of the offenders. News of the punishments and detectors scared off a lot of potential offenders but there are still several thousand incidents a year.

In 2010 there were suspicions that Islamic terrorists had adopted the use of green lasers to cause crashes among aircraft landing at the Italian Aviano military airbase. This base was heavily used by other NATO countries. Local police made an effort to catch whoever was using a laser pointer to distract (usually) or blind (potentially) pilots landing and taking off at Aviano. There was never any proof of Islamic terrorist involvement and the perpetrators were apparently local civilians.

There was some military use of commercial, eye-safe, green laser pointers in Iraq and Afghanistan. By this time these laser pointers had been redesigned to be “eye-safe” for brief exposure. Troops noted that these lasers had a range of about two kilometers and only cost about $70. Users are warned that these lasers are not completely harmless. If you get long enough exposure these lasers can cause temporary or permanent blindness. Taking that into account, eye-safe green lasers have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2005, to force drivers to stop at checkpoints. While no civilians had their eyes injured by these devices, at least two soldiers lost sight in one eye and over fifty others have suffered temporary blindness. These incidents took place when troops were horsing around with the devices, or simply being careless, and lased another soldier at close range.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, some green lasers were mounted in weatherproof, articulated enclosures which enabled troops to operate the laser remotely, to flash the laser light at oncoming drivers, to get them to stop at checkpoints or other locations. Anyone getting hit in the eye with these lasers will be disoriented for up to 15 minutes. When the Marines began using the device they bought a model that lowered the power when the target was too close. A laser becomes less powerful the farther away you are from it. This is one reason why troop injuries were more severe, as the victims are a lot closer to the laser. Civilians usually get hit when they are a hundred meters or more away. The navy has issued these devices to ships, to keep suspicious boats away.

International law prohibits the use of lasers to blind enemy troops but the more powerful lasers found on warships will blind it someone gets more than a brief exposure.

 


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