United States of America
Practice Relating to Rule 86. Blinding Laser Weapons
Section A. Laser weapons specifically designed to cause permanent blindness
The US Naval Handbook (1995) states:
Directed energy devices, which include laser … are not proscribed by the law of armed conflict. Lasers may be employed as a range finder or for target acquisition with the possibility of ancillary injury to enemy personnel, or directly against combatants as an anti-personnel weapon. Their use does not violate the prohibition against the infliction of unnecessary suffering.
The Annotated Supplement to the US Naval Handbook (1997) states that the position defined in the Naval Handbook
is no longer completely accurate with respect to antipersonnel weapons. There have been various efforts over the years to prohibit the use of lasers as antipersonnel weapons … [The 1995] Protocol IV [to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons] prohibits the use or transfer of laser weapons specifically designed to cause blindness to unenhanced vision.
The US Naval Handbook (2007) states: “U.S. military forces will not employ laser weapons specifically designed to cause permanent blindness.”
Prior to the adoption of the 1995 Protocol IV to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the United States was developing a number of laser systems intended to blind either personnel and/or optical systems. An evaluation in 1988 by the Office of the Judge Advocate General concluded that such weapons would not cause unnecessary suffering and therefore would not be illegal.
During the meetings of governmental experts preparatory to the Review Conference, the United States opposed the adoption of a Protocol on the subject. The system that was closest to deployment was the “Laser Countermeasure System” (LCMS also referred to as the PLQ-5), mounted on an M16 rifle, for which the army hoped to have government approval for manufacture in June 1995. This system was described as having “the primary objective to detect, jam and suppress threat fire control, optical and electro-optical systems”.
It certainly had the capacity to blind at considerable distances and its use for this purpose was not excluded.
Congress decided to delay its decision on whether to give approval for manufacture.
As a result of pressure from a number of Congressmen,
the Department of Defense reconsidered its policy. In September 1995, the Secretary of Defense announced that “the Department of Defense prohibits the use of lasers specifically designed to cause permanent blindness of unenhanced vision and supports negotiations prohibiting the use of such weapons”.
A Department of Defense News Briefing in October 1995 stated:
With lasers, we have an opportunity to stop a proliferation of a new and dangerous weapon, we hope. We are now engaged in discussions at the Conference on Conventional Weapons in Vienna to do just that. Secretary Perry felt strongly that we should take a lead role in that by swearing off the development and use of lasers intentionally designed to blind people.
A controversial analysis of the 1995 Protocol IV to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons by the Judge Advocate General of the US Department of the Army in 1995 stated that the Protocol was only applicable in international armed conflict, and not in operations such as “non-combatant evacuation, peacekeeping or counter terrorism missions, or in internal conflicts”. It also stated that the “State Parties that negotiated and adopted (by consensus) the laser Protocol did not conclude that use of a laser to blind an enemy combatant causes unnecessary suffering, or that use of a laser to blind an individual enemy combatant was illegal”.
Further to concern expressed at this interpretation by a US Senator,
the Secretary of Defense replied:
Regretting any confusion created by the internal November 1995 memo, I would like to take this opportunity to reaffirm the Department’s policy. As you know, it is US policy to prohibit the use of weapons specifically designed to permanently blind … It was not the intent of the States Parties to Protocol IV to prohibit only mass blinding … As you note, there is no prohibition in [the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons] on research, development or production. Nevertheless, the Department has no intent to spend money developing weapons we are prohibited from using. We certainly would not want to encourage other countries to loosely interpret the treaty’s prohibitions, by implying that we want to develop or produce weapons we are prohibited from using … On the question of individual blinding, your interpretation is correct. Under both [the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons] and [Department of Defense] policy, laser weapons designed specifically to cause permanent blindness may not be used against an individual enemy combatant.
On 5 October 1995, namely after the adoption of new policy and during the final negotiations of Protocol IV to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the US army cancelled the Laser Countermeasure System (LCMS) programme.
During the final plenary session of the First Review Conference of States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (Second Session) in 1996, the United States stated that it “supported expansion of the scope of Protocol IV and it is the policy of the US to refrain from the use of laser weapons prohibited by Protocol IV at all times”.
The guidelines on blinding laser weapons issued in 1997 by the US Secretary of Defense state:
The Department of Defense prohibits the use of lasers specifically designed to cause permanent blindness and supports negotiations to prohibit the use of such weapons. However, laser systems are absolutely vital to our modern military. Among other things, they are currently used for detection, targeting, range-finding, communications and target destruction. They provide a critical technological edge to US forces and allow our forces to fight, win and survive on an increasingly lethal battlefield. In addition, lasers provide significant humanitarian benefits. They allow weapon systems to be increasingly discriminate, thereby reducing collateral damage to civilian lives and property. The Department of Defense recognizes that accidental or incidental eye injuries may occur on the battlefield as the result of the use of lasers not specifically designed to cause permanent blindness. Therefore, we continue to strive, through training and doctrine, to minimize these injuries.
In 1997, in his message to the US Senate transmitting the 1995 Protocol IV to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons for consent to ratification, the US President stated: “These blinding lasers are not needed by our military forces. They are potential weapons of the future, and the US is committed to preventing their emergence and use.” Regarding the scope of the Protocol, whilst recognizing that it was officially that of international armed conflicts, the same message indicated that “it is US policy to apply the Protocol to all such conflicts, however they may be characterized, and in peacetime”.