Law Enforcement Use of Military Laser Raises Safety Concerns

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    Law Enforcement Use of Military Laser Raises Safety Concerns

    The Saber 203 is a prototype laser device used by U.S. Marines for

    illuminating, dazzling, and targeting foes. The U.S. Air Force Phillips Laboratory developed the Saber 203 and is now billing the device as a non-lethal tool for law enforcement officials to apprehend offenders. But some experts question the prolifera-t ion of the Saber 203 as a law enforcement device, because it could eventual ly end up in the hands of the general public."If these lasers proliferate into the gun shows of America, we're opening a Pando-ra's box that's very dangerous," says

    William Arkin, author of a Human Rights Watch Arms Project report, Blinding Laser Weapons: The Need to Ban a Cruel and Inhumane Weapon.

    The Saber 203 appears on a list of blinding laser weapons condemned by Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based h u m a n r ights mon i to r ing organiza t ion in the world; Funded by a handful of private donor s and foundat ions ( inc luding the Rockefeller Foundation), the organization accepts no government funds (see August 1995 OPN).

    "While the Department of

    Defense (DoD) sorts out policy on laser weapons, Phillips Lab has done an end-run by peddling this thing to law enforcement," says Arkin. DoD released a policy on blinding lasers in September 1995. "The Department of Defense prohibits the use of lasers specifically designed to cause perma-nent blindness of unenhanced vision and supports negotiations prohibit-ing the use of such weapons. Howev-er, laser systems are absolutely vital to our modern military." According to Human Rights Watch, there is still controversy over this policy in the high levels of the Pentagon.

    A Phillips Lab spokesman says the Saber 203 is harmless to the eye. Phil l ips would not disclose the power level of the Saber 203, but Lt. Robert Ireland of Phillips' Laser Applications Branch says that the milliwatt power levels of continuous wave energy used by the Saber 203 should "put at ease people with eye safety concerns."

    Ireland served as a technical advisor to marines who used the Saber 203 in Somalia to disperse a threatening band of Somalis. Now, Ireland demonstrates the Saber 203 for Phillips. Two proto-types of the Saber 203 exist. One was used while evacuating U.S. forces from Somalia in early 1995.

    Arkin claims the Saber 203 was used in Somalia to emit a 670 nm beam at 400 mW. The beam is atten-uated to provide eye safety. Arkin says that although military use of the Saber 203 may be safe, the system still has inherent capability to be lethal. "The Saber was designed to damage the eye, and now it's being re-advertised," Arkin says. "Phillips has invented something and they

    want to get it out there." U.S. Marines use the Saber 203 to

    "illuminate and designate" a target, so that the user and others on the perimeter of the user can take aim with weapons, explains Ireland. With the illumination, the target is made aware that a weapons system is upon them, which psychologically defeats the enemy. Thus, the Saber 203 increases the user's ability to tar-get the enemy, while decreasing the enemy's ability to fire. Disabling the enemy in this way provides a "force continuum" between two options: shoot and kill, or do nothing.

    According to Ireland, there is a lot of law enforcement interest in the Saber 203. Police currently use spotlights, but white light does not propagate as well as red through the atmosphere, especially through fog. He will continue to demonstrate the Saber's capability to law enforce-ment personnel, letting them decide on applications.

    The Saber is different from laser targeting devices that use a small spot size to aim a weapon. The 203 illumi-nates the whole target, so that conven-tional aiming methods can be used. The larger spot size makes the target easier to track. The Saber 203 also illu-minates reflections from things like license plates, binoculars, and night vision devices. "You can use it to scan an area," says Ireland.

    The red laser illuminator is effec-tive up to 300 m and lights a variable collimated beam with a 1-10 m spot size at 100 m. The device weighs about 1.5 lbs. and m o u n t s on a grenade launcher. The Saber 203 has a continuous run time of 30 min. on a nickel cadmium battery, which translates to about eight hours on a busy night, according to Ireland.

    Erik Kreifeldt

    6 O p t i c s & P h o t o n i c s N e w s / J a n u a r y 1 9 9 6

    The Saber 203 mounts into an M-203 grenade launcher, which is attached to a standard M-16 combat rifle.


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