As a young officer during the Boer War, Winston Churchill was morally outraged at the enemy's use of dum-dum bullets. Even more infuriating to Churchill was the fact that the bullets -- banned by the rules of warfare because they cause ghastly wounds -- had been invented by the British. But after weighing the moral issue against the realities of combat, Churchill loaded his pistol with the more lethal rounds.
Now President Clinton finds himself in a somewhat similar position with battlefield lasers.
The ostensible purpose of the lasers is to knock out enemy range finders and other electronic equipment. But they are also capable of blinding people exposed to their extremely intense light. And the United States is not alone in developing these weapons, which are relatively cheap and easy to make.
A 1990 Armed Forces Journal International article reported that 50,000 laser range-finding systems deployed on Russian tanks, artillery and aircraft could be adapted to blind enemy personnel. The publication also revealed that during the Cold War, the Soviet Union used lasers to blind U.S. aircrews temporarily and the United States made formal protests regarding these
Now despite denials from the military, and silence from the White House, it appears that the United States may be ready to use lasers as anti-personnel weapons.
Meanwhile, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, is pressuring the administration to support a Swedish-sponsored amendment to the 1980 United Nations accord barring conventional weapons that can cause excessive injury. It would ban blinding battlefield lasers.
Opponents of the amendment warn that a prohibition would inhibit research by scientists and corporations, and by the military for the legitimate use of lasers, such as electronic sensor countermeasures. The debate might also divert attention from the proposed ban on land mines, which continue to maim thousands of people annually.
Until recently, the military has denied the existence of lasers designed to blind. But Mr. Leahy got a different message after a recent meeting with Assistant Defense Secretary H. Allen Holmes. Afterward, Mr. Leahy said that he felt that "there is reason to believe that the U.S. military does have laser weapons capable of blinding."
The meeting was detailed in an April 17 article by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which reported Mr. Holmes acknowledging that a "laser system, intended for special missions [not battlefield use], can blind and is operational in very limited quantities." Mr. Holmes also reportedly said a program designed to "dazzle" or blind temporarily, "was deployed during the Somalia operation, but it was decided not to use it for that purpose during the operation."
Defense News reported that Martin Marietta Corp., now part of Lockheed Martin, discontinued the Stingray anti-sensor program in 1993. But in January a Martin official told this reporter that "two field-ready" prototypes were produced through the $68 million program. The Stingray is designed to be deployed on Bradley Fighting Vehicles, while a similar system called the Outrider is deployed on Humvee's. Martin documents state that the weapons can not only pinpoint targets but can also "suppress threat optical and electro-optical" enemy sensors. A Lockheed Martin official conceded that the systems can cause blindness.
A June 1994 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross revealed that McDonnell Douglas has developed two laser rifles that were successfully field-tested by the Army. The DAZER system, designed for the infantry to provide "soft kills" (blinding), weighs about 20 pounds and costs about $50,000. The COBRA laser rifle resembles an M-16 and has a range of one kilometer.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer article quoted Bill Arkin, an arms expert and former Army intelligence officer, as saying that COBRA and DAZER are clearly intended to function as anti-personnel weapons.
NATO allies who support the U.N. weapons convention amendment have similar weapons in development, and the British have deployed a laser system capable of blinding. A Jan. 13, 1990, article in Jane's Defense Weekly detailed the Royal Navy system called "Laser Dazzle Sight" which "can inflict serious eye damage, even blindness" to pilots up to 5 kilometers away. The Jane's article revealed that the Argentines may have lost three aircraft to British lasers during the Falklands War.
It's clear that President Clinton, like Winston Churchill, has weighed the morality of a horrific weapon against the realities of warfare, and made a decision based on the latter. But the administration, through its silence, has left the door open for embarrassment as Mr. Leahy gathers facts to bolster his push for an amendment to ban battlefield lasers.
Mike DeMayo is a reporter for National Security News Service.