Senate Boosts Funding for Laser Weapons

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By Walter Pincus
Monday, September 22, 2008

The Senate has embraced last year's Defense Science Board conclusion that directed-energy weapons -- such as high-, medium- and low-power lasers -- hold great potential and should be developed as soon as possible.

In the fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill, which was approved Wednesday, the Senate included additional funds for laser programs and a provision requiring Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to accelerate work that would make directed-energy weapons operational in the near future.

Low-power lasers known as "dazzlers" are being used in Iraq, mounted on M-4 rifles, "to warn or temporarily incapacitate individuals," according to the Defense Science Board's report. Army, Special Forces and more recently Marine units are using them to warn or deter drivers approaching checkpoints and to "defuse potential escalation of force incidents," according to the report.

Marines were given approval to use a green laser whose beam can temporarily reduce a person's vision when aimed from a distance of 1,000 yards, according to the report. These "laser optical incapacitation devices" were being procured on a case-by-case basis.

Laser use remains controversial because a protocol of the Geneva Conventions bans their use in combat when they are designed to cause permanent blindness.

Two years ago, when the lasers were introduced in Iraq, Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman, said the devices were legal. "They don't blind people," he told reporters. "It's like shining a big light in your eyes," he said, adding that he did not know how long the "optical incapacitation" lasted.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, in its report on the fiscal 2009 authorization bill, asked about the progress of lasers. "Years of investment have not resulted in any current operational high-energy laser capability," the committee noted in its report.

The science board said tactical laser systems could be developed for broader use because they "enable precision ground attack to minimize collateral damage in urban conflicts." The report suggested, for example, that "future gunships could provide extended precision lethality and sensing."

The board also proposed using lasers to protect against rockets, artillery, mortars and unmanned airborne vehicles by blasting them out of the sky. Last month, the Army awarded Boeing $36 million to continue development of a high-energy laser mounted on a truck that could hit overhead targets. But deployment is not expected until 2016, even if all goes well.

The Senate committee was critical of the "airborne laser" program, a first-generation missile defense system. It held back $30 million from next year's budget and said funds for a second version would not be authorized until the first shoot-down test from a 747 aircraft is conducted at the end of 2009. More information is needed to determine whether the system "could eventually provide a militarily useful, operationally effective and affordable missile defense capability," the panel's report said.

Past Defense Science Board studies have had impact. A 2004 report recommended a "Manhattan Project" approach to take "available and emerging technologies . . . to identify objects or people of interest from surveillance data and to verify a specific individual's identification." It suggested that "biometrics, tags, object recognition and identification tokens" be harnessed with sensors and databases "to overcome the shortcomings of conventional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems."

Tags allow distant tracking or detection. Some tags are active, emitting radio waves that can be collected. Others are passive, including chemicals that give off a color when hit by an infrared beam. The board said these "represent a very important area for research and technology development."

Four years later, Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, discussing his new book, "The War Within," on CBS's "60 Minutes," attributed part of the success of the troop buildup in Iraq to "secret operational capabilities that have been developed by the military to locate, target and kill leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq, insurgent leaders, renegade militia leaders. That is one of the true breakthroughs."

A recent congressional report said Special Forces in Iraq are using newly developed "sophisticated capabilities to identify, find, track, and kill or capture high-value individuals."

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to fineprint@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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