Ethical Debates On Laser Weapons

laser attack

The discussions and debates on the use of laser weapons and the conceptual analysis of laser technology were there from very early times itself, but the entry of laser weapons in a war field is seen as more of a recent phenomenon.

laser weapons
Laser – Credit: Patrick Langwallner

It was the US that first introduced the technology in warfare. Later countries like Russia (Soviet), China, and Israel also followed the line, and currently, the US, China, and Israel are seen to have to lead the line.

It was during the 1960s that Laser technology was first invented, and created a disruptive impact in modern warfare, hence it can be considered as a breakthrough in the approach of warfare itself. From then onwards they were “successful in a limited number of demonstrations, early lasers able to generate sufficient powers to damage a target at the required range were both extremely complex and suffering from a large footprint.” Laser technology got more attention in the evolution in military affairs (RMA) due to its accuracy and rapidity factors associated with Laser weapons. This helps in modernizing the arms more largely.

Debates about laser weapons mostly revolve around use against humans. The advocates of Humanitarian Law criticized lasers are ethically wrong on battlefields, especially the blinder lasers. There were incidents in history where some countries using blinder lasers on battlefields against the attackers. For example, China in the Philippines arms exhibition in 1995 followed in Abu Dhabi. Along with China, North Korea, and Russia are also criticized for the use of these types of laser weapons in international forums.

The aircraft with flashing laser lights are commonly considered to be dangerous to civilians due to various health issues these can cause. The ZM-87 portable electro-optical countermeasure neodymium laser is one of those laser weapons which was criticized hugely due to its property of blinding the target object. They were used by the Chinese as well as its ally armies such as Russia and North Korea to blind the video cameras and missile seekers etc, but they created even human eyesight. ZM-87 has a power output of about 15mW and a range of about 3 to 10 km maximum. Soon after the use of ZM-87 US came up with a statement that these blinding lasers are unacceptable in warfare, and later Human Rights Watch come up with huge criticism against these lasers. 

All these discussions about the use of these types of blinding lasers and the ethics and morals behind them got more international attention lead to the 1980 Geneva Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. This protocol included the use of blinder lasers as well.

Countries like the US, China are signatories to the protocol and the protocol comes into effect in 1998 only. Surprisingly the possibility of Russia using the ZM-84 in the Russian naval ship, that is, Kapitan Man was reported after the blind attack experienced by the Canadian air force helicopter CH-124 near the Port of Angels in 1997. The US naval intelligence condemned the Russian Kaptian Man responsible for the attack, however, Russia never accepted the accusation. Later in 2003 North Korea in between an air exercise in the demilitarized zone in the Korean peninsula is reported using the ZM-84 laser. It is in Protocol IV of the convention the use of blinding lasers is prohibited. Russia ratified the treaty in 1981.

One major drawback of the 1980 protocol was that in the protocol there is no restriction for the use of lasers designed for disabling sensors and video cameras, which can cause inadvertent human blindness, hence many countries like China keep on producing Blinding sensor, the dazzler laser fixed in the Type-99 battle tank of China is an example of such blinding laser. Also, the US and its NATO forces are using light-powered dazzler lasers like GLARE MOUT and GLOW system in the fight with Iraq and Afghanistan.

The use of laser weapons against humans is completely banned, and the debates concerning the use of lasers are less discussed in the post-cold war era, where all countries including that of India, Japan France, and all are on the path of moving more towards the DEW and more specifically lasers. 


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