Your tax dollars at work! Isn’t this nice:
The subject gets little publicity nowadays, but until the mid-1990s, the US Air Force openly funded research on how to destroy human eyeballs at a distance with lasers. At the time, the justification was that such a technology—causing permanent blindness—was no worse than burning people with napalm, irradiating them, or blasting them to bits with bombs.
The research got quite far along; in 1995, Human Rights Watch identified at least 10 different laser blinding programs of concern, which the military ran under the names “laser countermeasure system,” BOSS, Persuader, LX-5, Saber 203, TLOS, Green Laser, Nighthawk, and Y-Blue, among others. In that same year a treaty, the New Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, was adopted by the United Nations; it banned such weaponry, and Bulletin contributing editorWilliam Arkin penned a full-page story applauding the ban. He wrote: “The humanitarian considerations of this potentially horrific new chapter in warfare far outweighed the minor—and redundant—military benefit.”
But while the weapon itself was banned, research into laser weaponry was not, so work on it continued, under other rubrics. While I was an editor at a laser magazine in the early 2000s, my colleagues and I attended a year-round litany of multi-day conferences on the latest developments in lasers—and usually found Air Force researchers there, including those in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Biometrics at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Modesto, California. (Though located in California, their particular research was funded by the University of Illinois and the US Air Force.) In interviews in the year 2000, they said that technically speaking, they were researching with the aim of protecting America’s soldiers in the field from getting blinded by lasers, and doing so required them to study the precise laser settings that would cause the most damage to the human cornea. (For the record, researchers typically test their laser beams on artificial, eyeball-like tissue grown in petri dishes, which often consist of five layers of epithelial cells, each layer 0.450 nanometers thick.)
Researchers may have been careful to say that they were trying to protect US soldiers, but their logic could be interpreted as a fig leaf to get around the ban, which went into force in 1998. In interviews in 2000, Air Force-funded researchers admitted that it would be easy to turn their work to protect American soldiers around and use it to blind the enemy. It seems that at least part of the military rationale behind the technology is that a dead soldier is just dead, but a blinded one needs the help of others, thus tying up several enemy soldiers at once—similar to the thinking behind the use of landmines to blow off legs and arms.
Military-funded research in this area continues to be conducted by the Optical Radiation Bioeffects and Safety program—which sometimes contracts out the work to outside engineering firms. Research and development is also being conducted by firms such as B.E. Meyers Electro-Optics, makers of a laser device called the Glare Mout Plus, while the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate of the Defense Department leads the Pentagon’s end.