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September 27, 2002
Now You See, Now You Don’t
The Pentagon’s blinding lasers.

U.S. weapons manufacturers are hard at work developing futuristic precision weapons that promise to keep Americans even further out of harm’s way: lasers.

Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, who together had $20.3 billion in Pentagon contracts in 2001, are collaborating on development of “directed energy weapons”—powerful 100-kilowatt infrared lasers for use on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The JSF program, worth an estimated $200 billion, is Lockheed Martin’s crowning accomplishment. If all goes well, the Pentagon will soon order as many as 3,000 F-35s, making it the largest acquisition program in history. This $40 million fighter plane will be ubiquitous in the U.S. military and throughout the world. England, Norway, Italy, Singapore, Turkey, Israel and others have already expressed serious interest as well.

The JSF laser system could be used to destroy communication lines, power grids, or fuel dumps, or to zero in on part of a vehicle, like the engine. The weapons, which are scheduled to be ready for testing in 2010, would be covert, powerful and untraceable. “There’s no huge explosion associated with its employment, there are no pieces and parts left behind that someone can analyze to say, ‘this came from the United States,’ ” explains an unnamed Lockheed Martin official quoted in Aviation Week and Space Technology in July. “The damage is localized, and it is hard to tell where it came from and when it happened. It is all pretty mysterious.”

So mysterious, in fact, that engineers are only beginning to consider what the lasers will do to people. According to Aviation Week and Space Technology, military planners in Israel are not pursuing directed-energy weapons because of concerns they “might result in new, unanticipated types of collateral damage.” For example, the weapons could disrupt electricity at civilian sites or affect pacemakers.

They could also blind and injure people in the vicinity. As Gordon Hengst of the Air Force Research Laboratory in New Mexico, where the research on the lasers is being conducted, points out: “The reflected energy typically will cover large amounts of real estate and space, since the energy is spreading in many directions.”

He adds that if the target is moving, the possibility of refraction is greater. According to New Scientist magazine, the human eye is very vulnerable to light from lasers: “Safety guidelines warn against staring into beams of only a few milliwatts. … The unpredictable reflections scattered from a 100-kilowatt laser could be devastating.”

Weapons manufacturers concede that blinding and other injuries could occur, but say the benefits outweigh the concerns. “As with all weapons, there is potential for inflicting collateral damage,” says Tom Burris, a Lockheed scientist.

And surprisingly enough, despite the fact that the United States signed the Geneva Convention’s Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons in 1991, these weapons are exempt. The convention prohibits “laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision.” [Emphasis added.] But a small phrase is a loophole big enough for a fighter plane to fly through. Stephen Goose of Human Rights Watch explains, “That protocol was purposely drafted to avoid capturing other types of laser weapons systems.”

Laser weapons blind, whether or not they are “specifically designed” to do so as their “sole combat function.” They are also the wave of the future, says Mike Booen of Raytheon: “We want to replace high explosives [like bombs and missiles] with directed energy weapons.” The Pentagon has been investing accordingly.

Laser weapons seem like the answer to Washington’s prayers for an antiseptic warfare that plays well on television and will not offend the American public with civilian deaths or U.S. casualties. But that’s easier said than done. The Afghan war, which is costing U.S. taxpayers $2.5 billion a month and relies on high-tech weapons and sophisticated communications equipment, has produced deadly errors with macabre regularity. With laser weapons, we can only expect more of the same.


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