Forces bank on lasers to cut Afghan civilian casualties; Army to sign $10M deal for 500 dazzlers; devices cause temporary blindness

The Ottawa Citizen

Friday, December 19, 2008


By David Pugliese


The Canadian military will purchase 500 laser dazzlers for troops in Afghanistan as it seeks a new way to reduce the number of casualties among Afghan civilians.


The devices are used to temporarily blind individuals and the army is hoping the systems can be used to warn off Afghans who drive or walk too close to Canadian checkpoints or convoys. In the past, troops worried about suicide bombers have killed or wounded civilians who ignored or didn’t see warnings to keep their distance.


That, in turn, has prompted concern in the army that such incidents could erode support for the presence of coalition forces in Kandahar.


The dazzlers, now renamed as “laser-generated visual warning technology,” could be in the hands of Canadian troops in Afghanistan as early as next fall.


Maj. Stéphane Dufour, director of the project to acquire the new devices, said the dazzlers are designed to protect soldiers and Afghan civilians. He noted that being hit by a laser is akin to someone looking at the sun.


“It’s fairly bright,” Maj. Dufour explained. “It will not debilitate you so much that you will have an accident, but for sure you will know something is going on. If you keep coming then the intent is determined that perhaps you are not a good guy and therefore (soldiers can) keep escalating force.”


The devices will be mounted on the personal weapons used by the troops.


The dazzler project is expected to cost more than $10 million. There is the potential for another 250 dazzlers to be purchased after the initial order.


Demonstrations of the dazzlers were conducted in Ottawa in August 2007 and there have been various tests. Additional testing is planned for early next year.


But Anthony Salloum, program director of the Rideau Institute, an advocacy group that has raised concerns about the dazzler purchase, said the systems are being put into the field without proper testing. That, in turn, could put Canada in the situation of violating the international treaties it has signed in regards to the introduction of new weapons, he added.


Mr. Salloum said Canada has also ratified a treaty that prevents the use of weapons that cause permanent blindness. “All of this begs the question about why the government is going full hog on purchasing 500 of these weapons when they haven’t been fully tested,” he said.


A report on the dazzlers by the Canadian air force’s safety centre said that injury from the lasers could range from something quite significant to virtually undetectable. The report noted that it will be important to train soldiers not to use the devices on individuals at too close of a range, because of the injury they could cause.


Another risk, according to the report, is the potential for soldiers to be inadvertently injured by accidentally activating the devices. “History has shown that an accidental activation of a laser device is a common cause of injury, and is the result of a lack of training by the individual and/or poor system design by the manufacturer,” the report said.


However, the report listed the overall risk of the devices as minor and noted that those could be dealt with through various means.


Maj. Dufour said the Defence Department conducted a thorough legal review and it was decided the devices can be used without violating international law, since they are classified as warning systems and aren’t purposely designed to blind individuals.


But he acknowledged the lasers could potentially cause harm to a person’s eyesight if they got within 20 metres of the device.


Mr. Salloum called on the Defence Department to make public its reports, including medical tests, which support the department’s claims that the devices are relatively safe.


Maj. Dufour said soldiers would be issued with protective eyewear and trained in the proper use of the systems.


He said the Canadian Forces examined various technologies, but lasers were determined to the be best to do the job in all types of conditions.

 For more Canadian Forces and Defence Department news go to David Pugliese’s Defence Watch at:







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