Defense Media Network

“Set Lasers on Stun”

In the 23rd century, Capt. James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise famously (and routinely) ordered his crew to “set phasers on stun” against unarmed or lightly-armed attackers. In the early 21st century, servicemen and women in the U.S. military can do exactly that thanks to the new generation of directed-energy Non-Lethal Weapons (NLWs) – lasers – developed by the Department of Defense’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program.

Guidelines established by the 1995 United Nations Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons bans systems designed to cause permanent blindness. The laser NLWs under development and presently operational are designed to cause temporary blindness or disorientation.

Capt. Drew Goettler demonstrates the Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response, or PHaSR, a non-lethal illumination technology developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s ScorpWorks team, in 2005. The technology was the first man-portable, non-lethal deterrent weapon intended for protecting troops and controlling hostile crowds. The laser light used in the weapon temporarily impairs aggressors by illuminating or “dazzling” individuals, removing their ability to see the laser source. U.S. Air Force photo

One type of laser presently in use in Iraq and Afghanistan is an optical distractor called the dazzling laser. Instead of blinding an individual, dazzling lasers temporarily overwhelm the targeted person’s visual sense using directional light energy to provide an obvious non-verbal warning. The effect, roughly, is similar to what happens when a driver rounds a curve and is suddenly struck by sunlight glare hitting a windshield. One such laser dazzler is the SaberShot Photonic Disruptor, a low-power device using 250Mw of 532nm green-laser. It is available in three models: hand-held (about the size of a pistol), weapon mounted, or as a grenade. The laser’s optics temporarily expand to generate a blinding light that can penetrate smoke or fog at twice the range of white light. Modulation of this high intensity light causes disorientation, dazzling and blink reaction, thus reducing the target’s activity. It is particularly useful against drivers in approaching vehicles, snipers, or RPG operators. In contrast to the hand-held and weapon-mounted models, which are aimed, the grenade type of laser dazzler emits in rapid succession dazzling rays with 360 degree coverage, and is designed to be most effective in confined spaces such as corridors and hallways or small rooms.

On the horizon is another type of laser NLW, one that uses laser-induced plasma (LIP) and laser-induced plasma detonations (LIP-D) technologies. These NLWs generate ultra-short pulse lasers with extremely high peak power; the pulses lasting just fractions of a second. The interaction of the air and laser light at specific wavelength causes the light to break into filaments that form a plasma channel that conducts the energy. Think of it as a sort of directional, man-made lightning bolt. Tests against vehicle electronic systems have already shown that the weapon can shut down a running car engine. LIP-D bursts create a series of flash-bang effects that have the potential to deter or suppress personnel through the pummeling of painful shock waves.

These, and other new NLW systems, are providing an invaluable option to commanders involved in military operations other than war. But, Col. Tracy J. Tafolla, USMC, Director, Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, noted in the JNLWP’s 2009 annual report, “Material solutions alone are not the answer. We must also improve our training of non-lethal weapons and devices during pre-deployment training escalation-of-force continuum scenarios. Well equipped and trained forces that can think through complex situations are the keys to success.”


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...