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Blinded by the light


In an effort to dispel my growing paranoia about the recent incidents of lasers "painting" airline cockpits and interfering with pilots' vision (see post below), I've been researching the recent history of battlefield laser weapons and countermeasures. Here are a few of the things I've learned:

  • Laser-blinding weapons are outlawed for use in war under the Convention on Conventional Weapons—an amendment to the Geneva Protocol, which was signed in 1980 and further modified in 1995.
  • The Iranian military suffered over 4,000 documented eye casualties from Iraqi laser systems during the Iran-Iraq war. This fact—and the subsequent findings of the Iraq Survey Group—suggest that Saddam Hussein had a longstanding interest in laser technology as a weapon of war.
  • The most portable laser-blinding weapon available in the international arms market is the ZM-87 "Portable Laser Disturber" (pictured above), manufactured by China's North Industries Corporation (NORINCO). The ZM-87 is tripod mounted and weighs just 73 pounds, making it a fairly concealable weapon for terrorists. (Most other laser-blinding weapons need to be mounted on a tank, truck or other vehicle.) The ZM-87 can injure eyes at ranges up to two miles, or three miles with a magnifying optic. NORINCO has promoted sales of the weapon at trade shows in Manila and Abu Dhabi.
  • North Korea’s military fired a laser in March of 2003 at two U.S. Army helicopters patrolling the demilitarised zone, according to a story by Bill Gertz that originally appeared in The Washington Times. According to Gertz, "two Apache attack helicopters were illuminated by … by a weapon that had the characteristics of a Chinese laser gun, an indication that North Korea has deployed a new and potentially lethal weapon. Lasers focus concentrated beams of light on a target and are used in some guidance systems. The Chinese laser gun, however, is a weapon that can cause eye damage at ranges up to three miles." The story identifies the weapon in question as most probably the ZM-87.
  • NORINCO has been cited as one of the main Chinese recipients of Saddam's oil vouchers under the infamous U.N. Oil-for-Food regime. An October 12 story in The Washington Times, again with Bill Gertz' byline, notes that NORINCO has been identified as a major supplier of weapons goods to Iraq and has been sanctioned by the U.S. government several times. "Norinco agreed in 2000 to supply 200 gyroscopes for use in Russian and Chinese cruise missiles. It also sold machine tools with missile applications …. Norinco agreed to continue selling military goods to Iraq despite Baghdad's debt of more than $3 billion to the company from earlier sales." No specific mention of the ZM-87, of course, but I suspect this would have been small change in a $3 billion-plus weapons budget.
  • The Vision Laboratory at the Naval Air Systems Command's (NAVAIR) Human Systems Division has developed a laser-blinding countermeasures system for aircraft called a "Laser Event Recorder" (LER). The LER lets pilots know if they're being targeted by a laser, and whether that laser can damage their eyes. A green light on the box means the system is functioning and everything is normal; yellow means a laser is pointed at them but is not an eye hazard; and red means they are being targeted by a laser that threatens their vision.  Some airline pilots are demanding the LERs be fitted to commercial aircraft, given the growing number of laser-related incidents.

I still think that it's fairly improbable that terrorists would be smuggling laser-blinding weapons out of Iraq (or wherever) and positioning them in neighborhoods around major U.S. airports—especially when they could be doing the same thing with shoulder-launched missiles, which are equally portable. All the same, the facts I've cited above—in combination with the growing number of reported incidents—does give one pause.

Posted by Rodger on December 31, 2004 at 11:30 AM | Permalink


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