Until the mid-1990s, the U.S. Air Force funded research on how to destroy human eyeballs at a distance with lasers. There were at least 10 such programs with names like BOSS, Nighthawk and Y-Blue. An international treaty banned these weapons, but, according to one report, the research has continued.
Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, veteran science writer and foreign correspondent Dan Drollette, Jr. says that, at the time, the Air Force's justification was that causing permanent blindness is no worse than shooting or bombing soldiers. In fact, from a tactical perspective, it was deemed more advantageous: a dead soldier is just dead, but a blinded one needs the help of others, thus tying up several enemy soldiers at once — similar to the thinking behind the use of landmines to blow off legs and arms.
Drolette argues that, although the laser-blinding programs have been formally canceled, development of the technology is still ongoing:
Military-funded research in this area continues to be conducted by the Optical Radiation Bioeffects and Safety program—which sometimes contracts out the work to outside engineering firms. Research and development is also being conducted by firms such as B.E. Meyers Electro-Optics, makers of a laser device called the Glare Mout Plus, while the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate of the Defense Department leads the Pentagon's end.
It is clear that lasers are being aimed at eyes in combat situations, but the militaries involved say the intent is not to blind, but to warn or protect against attack…..The Green Laser Optical Warner, or GLOW, is meant to temporarily stun, or "dazzle" the eye with glare. With an effective range of 300 meters, or nearly 1,000 feet, GLOW is intended to be used to stop suspicious characters from approaching a military checkpoint….U.S. forces used a similar device in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Green Laser Interdiction System [GLIS], which has an effective range of a few kilometers at night.
But something bright enough to dazzle at 300 meters can cause permanent eye damage at 50 meters, and these devices can be set to deliver a narrow (and more intense) beam. To get around the ban against blinding weapons, systems like the GLIS run off of a low-power source.
Some laser dazzlers—supposedly intended for dazzling alone—are powerful enough to cause serious eye damage… There is also a domestic version of the dazzler, meant for police use…..The question is whether it could—either accidentally or after some modest intentional modification—cause lasting harm.