While there is no guarantee these systems will develop on the smooth trajectory envisioned, the military sees several promising ways around the technological challenges, which is why it can now talk concretely about deployment. Perhaps the biggest obstacle faced by battlefield lasers isn’t technological, however. For some 20 years, human-rights groups have opposed these weapons on the grounds that they are likely to blind people.
In the face of international pressure, the United States has already backed away from some of its laser ambitions. William Horton, a former army lieutenant colonel who worked on battlefield lasers for years until the early 1990s, confirms that the U.S. military long worked to develop vehicle- and backpack-mounted lasers designed to locate and blast enemy optical lenses such as periscopes or binoculars-with likely disastrous results for any enemy eyes peering through them. When reports circulated in the press about these efforts around 1985, protests ensued, and the systems didn’t reach production (Horton says two vehicle-mounted prototypes were deployed in the Gulf War, but not used). Then, in 1995, the United States signed an amendment to the Geneva Convention protocols that prohibits blinding weapons.
The military always had a way out, since weapons designed to kill people or destroy objects-and that only carry a risk of blinding-are exempted from the ban. That’s a loophole big enough to fly a laser-equipped 747 through, which is why deploying battlefield lasers remains viable. But even if the armed services are legally off the hook, top brass realize that in developing such lasers they are flirting with a public-relations disaster. The idea of a blinded soldier-or worse, a nurse or child-paraded on the news as a victim of an invisible American beam could make this country’s high-tech military seem like high-tech monsters.
As a result, the military remains queasy about calling attention to its interest in battlefield lasers. The programs aren’t secret; that tactic already backfired once for the government with the optics-hunting laser projects. But the policy appears to be one of not volunteering information unless pressed-and even when pressed, most military and civilian managers involved in laser defense programs deny knowledge of initiatives intended to bring lasers to bear against ground targets. On one point, they’re clear, however: human targets are strictly off limits. “We’ve done nothing in the area of antipersonnel applications,” says Bradshaw. “Certainly not to blind someone, and we’ve gone even further, to do whatever it takes to not injure a human.”
But this one isn’t likely to stay on the back burner. Dominique Loye, who studies possible Geneva protocol weapons violations for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, argues that the mere fact a battlefield laser isn’t intended to blind or harm people doesn’t guarantee it will pass muster with international agreements against weapons that injure in cruel ways. After all, he notes, who knows what soldiers will do with them in the heat of battle? “When you have a powerful weapon in your hand, you might start off firing at the intended target,” he says. “But if you’re threatened by enemy soldiers, you might turn it against them and use it quite indiscriminately.”
Such objections will only get more intense as laser-weapon programs progress. But given the promise of putting pinpoint, ammunitionless firepower into the hands of front-line soldiers, the military is likely to press on in its quest for a Star Wars battlefield. And just as likely, warfare will never be the same again.