Britain is offered US laser weapons: 'Non-lethal' devices may violate war laws

THE Ministry of Defence has been offered a new 'non-lethal' laser weapon from the United States to 'blind' enemy armoured vehicles. Whereas agreements between the US and Russia limit the employment of such weapons, they do not, so far, apply to Britain.

Yesterday the MoD admitted there was frequent discussion with the US on 'a range of technologies', but said it would be 'inappropriate to comment on the specifics'.

The weapon, manufactured by Martin Marietta, of Orlando, Florida, is only one of a range of 'non-lethal' weapons which military experts believe has great potential.

There are many operations - such as that in Bosnia - where using massive conventional firepower to blow other forces to pieces would be politically unacceptable.

Apart from their greater political acceptability, the new 'non-lethal' weapons are also needed to enhance the effects of conventional weapons deployed by lighter - and therefore more vulnerable - forces as part of the growing need for rapid deployment anywhere in the world.

Besides lasers, the 'non-lethal' weapons include computer viruses, quick-hardening polymer foam and low-frequency sound.

According to a report in the latest International Defense Review, published by UK-based Jane's Information Group, the Martin Marietta system, known as 'Outrider', derived from the 'Stingray' low-energy laser, targets the optics and laser technology in enemy combat vehicles, destroying them with laser energy.

Two prototypes were mounted on Bradley Armoured Fighting vehicles in the 1991 Gulf war, but were not used because the campaign was so brief.

The US Army has awarded Martin Marietta a contract to develop the 'Outrider' system for use on Hummer cross-country vehicles. IDR said presentations had also been made to US Marine Corps and British MoD representatives.

Martin Marietta envisages the Outrider being used with a conventional weapon - the TOW (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided) missile. The missile has to be guided towards its target for 17 seconds, during which time the launch vehicle is vulnerable. The laser, which travels at the speed of light, prevents the target vehicle from detecting the missile until it has arrived.

Although at first sight attractive because they disable the enemy without killing directly, 'non-lethal' weapons may violate the existing laws of war. Rupert Pengelly, IDR's editor-in-chief, said the International Red Cross had shown concern about systems of this type as they could blind people looking through optical sights.

During the Gulf war, the British were extremely concerned about Russian-made lasers believed to be in service with the Iraqis and issued special goggles developed by the Defence Research Agency's Malvern branch (formerly the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment) to armoured vehicle crews.

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