Star Wars, Indeed: US Navy Will Deploy Its First (Hopefully Legal) Laser Cannons to Persian Gulf

by Julian Ku

It looks like the US Navy is going to go ahead and start deploying its new laser cannons to the Persian Gulf next year, according to this Washington Post report.  The Navy has been developing this weapon for years as a cheaper alternative to missiles for attacking smaller targets, especially drones (My 2005 self is still kind of amazed at my 2014 self for writing this last sentence in all seriousness and not as part of a science fiction fantasy).  But you have to watch this video…

Is there any legal limitation on this new weapon?  Well, the Navy is planning to limit it to self-defense for now, according to this WSJ($) report.

“We have the authorities right now to use it in self-defense,” Adm. Klunder said. “If someone was coming to harm the USS Ponce, we could use this laser system on that threat and we would intend to do so.”

The U.S. is also party to the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, ratified by the U.S. back in 2008.  The Protocol limits the U.S. Navy’s lasers in this way:

Article 1

It is prohibited to employ laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision, that is to the naked eye or to the eye with corrective eyesight devices. The High Contracting Parties shall not transfer such weapons to any State or non-State entity.

The scope of this provision is limited by Article 3, which appears to allow blinding via lasers if it is an incidental or collateral effect.

Article 3

Blinding as an incidental or collateral effect of the legitimate military employment of laser systems, including laser systems used against optical equipment, is not covered by the prohibition of this Protocol.

This would seem to give the US Navy enough room to use its laser cannons, which are not intended just to blind, but to actually destroy targets (take a look at that video one more time).  Still, it is possible that blinding would be one of its effects, since it is intended to be used against small targets, including small boat attacks favored by Iran.  Soldiers in these open boats could be “blinded” by a laser attack, and Article 2 requires the U.S. to take all feasible precautions to avoid the incidence of permanent blindness to unenhanced vision.” Still, I think Article 3 is enough cover for the U.S. Navy to justify its use in combat.  And just in case, the U.S. added a declaration upon accession:

“It is the understanding of the United States of America with respect to Article 2 that any decision by any military commander, military personnel, or any other person responsible for planning, authorizing or executing military action shall only be judged on the basis of that person’s assessment of the information reasonably available to the person at the time the person planned, authorized or executed the action under review, and shall not be judged on the basis of information that comes to light after the action under review was taken.”

Star Wars is here, and no treaty is going to stop it….

3 Responses

  1. Prof Ku,

    Thank you for the post. I am interested to know whether you think acting in self-defense has any bearing on the legality of using the particular class of weapon? Put another way, is a claim of self-defense relevant to the type of weapon used or only goes to the authority to use force in the first place?

    thank you

  2. Hi, I don’t think the “self-defense” limitation on laser cannons is required by any legal rule I am aware of, except of course that the U.S. military cannot use any of its weapons (except in self defense) unless it is authorized to under U.S. law and rules of engagement and international law. But none of those rules would apply specifically to laser cannons. I suppose, in theory, the U.S. Navy could use the lasers offensively against Al Qaeda targets, but I think the Navy is going to limit its use for now probably for prudential reasons.

  3. Response…
    Presumably if it is acceptable as a matter of international law for the US Navy to use laser canons to disable /destroy the drones employed by other countries or states or even non- state actors it will be acceptable also as a matter of international law for another country/ state / non-state actor to use laser canons to shoot down or destroy or disable US drones it considers either violating or a threat to its territory or air space even if not actually above the state or country but as long as the drone can “see” into the territory of that other state/ country.

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