DSEI (Defence & Security Equipment International) is the world’s largest arms fair. It allows arms buyers and sellers to network and make deals. It happens once every two years in East London.
On Thursday 7 September 2017 Veterans For Peace UK (VFP UK) conducted a vehicle check point (VCP) on the route into the Excel Centre during the setup of the DSEi Arms Fair, in order to search for banned weapons. There were reasonable grounds for suspecting that such weapons were being transported into the Excel Centre for DSEi Arms Fair. This search was obstructed by the police.
At previous arms fairs, weapons have been for sale at the fair that contravene the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (landmines, booby traps, incendiary weapons, blinding laser weapons) and the Convention on Cluster Munitions. These are conventions that the UK is a signatory of.
This week VFP deployed a covert search team into the Excel Centre to record what was being sold and promoted at the DSEi Arms Fair. Among the many stands our team found on display a prototype laser weapon system in the 50kW class, known as Dragonfire.
Although not widely known, the Royal Navy deployed laser weapons during the 1982 Falklands War. A recently declassified letter from the Secretary of State for Defence (Michael Heseltine) in January 1983 stated;
“You may recall, however, that we developed and deployed with great urgency a naval laser weapon, designed to dazzle low flying Argentine pilots attacking ships, to the Task Force in the South Atlantic. This weapon was not used in action and knowledge of it has been kept to a very restricted circle.”
The “Laser Dazzle Sight” was reportedly developed by the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment and the Admiralty Research Establishment in 1981. They were also deployed on various ships in the nineties, especially those deployed to the Gulf of Arabia. The MoD have always claimed that these were not designed to blind, but merely dazzle. However with any laser weapon it is very difficult to predict what will dazzle and what will blind.
The Dragonfire weapon is considerably more powerful than the “Laser Dazzle Sight” of the 1980’s. Will the Dragonfire weapon system contravene the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons of which the UK is a signatory? The relevant section of that convention is the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons and the answer to the question depends on:
- The combat function of the weapon, how the MoD intends to use the weapon.
- If the UK intends to transfer (sell) the weapon to another State.
“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…”
(Article 1, Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons)
The Dragonfire is currently marketed as a naval weapon to defend ships from missiles however the manufacturers claim that it can be sized up and down and so can be fitted to maritime (ships), land (tanks) and airborne platforms (planes). This greatly widens the scope of potential targets and therefore widens the scope of it’s combat function.
According to the Ministry of Defence, “Dragonfire, could complement or replace existing weapons systems with the potential for significant benefits. It could be employed to protect our maritime and land forces; for example, ships from threat missiles (not in breach) or soldiers from enemy mortars (could be in breach depending on how they intend to neutralise enemy mortars).”
We have seen with weapons such as White Phosphorous and Anti-Tank weapons that the stated combat function of a weapon is often ignored or changed in combat situations. White Phosphorous is intended to function as a smoke screen but is also used as an incendiary and to burn human targets. Anti-tank weapons are meant to be used to defend infantry from armoured vehicles but have often used to attack dismounted troops in defensive positions and even to attack homes and other civilian buildings. Whilst the Dragonfire is promoted as a defensive weapon it will be easy to deploy this weapon in an offensive role to blind enemy troops, especially in a difficult situation where UK forces are facing defeat.
Transfer to another State
The High Contracting Parties shall not transfer such weapons to any State or non-State entity.
(Article 1, Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons)
If the UK intends to transfer (sell) the weapon to another State then how that State intends to use the weapon will also determine whether the UK is in breach of the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons.
According to MBDA, one of the manufacturers, the Dragonfire project “advances the UK towards a future product with significant export potential, as well as providing opportunities for partnerships with other nations’ armed forces that have similar requirements.” So there is an intention to transfer the weapon system to other States.
The USA is a possible purchaser of Dragonfire. They have deployed a working laser weapon system on board USS Ponce in the Gulf last year. The laser has been successfully tested shooting down drone aircraft (not in breach), burning up small attacking boats (questionable), or at lower power to “dazzle” (probably in breach as using a laser to dazzle could easily cause permanent blindness).
As with any weapon there is the risk of proliferation. Once the weapon has been developed the technology can be mimicked and used, not necessarily for its originally stated combat function. There is also a risk that one of these weapons could end up in the hands of a non-state actor and be used for the purposes of terrorism by blinding civilians on a mass scale or using it to take down a civilian aircraft.
Energy weapons are an increasing focus for defence firms and expected to become more common on the battlefield in the next decade. Weapon systems like Dragonfire have an obvious defensive use against missiles, however they can all too easily be used to cause permanent blindness. Even if the weapon is confined to missile defence, each time a missile defence system is developed a new missile is then developed to breach it, leading to arms races and greatly adding to the cost of the defence budget.
The ban on blinding laser weapons was issued by the United Nations on 13 October 1995 and came into force on 30 July 1998. The ICRC welcomed the ban as “a significant breakthrough in international humanitarian law,” adding ”The prohibition, in advance, of the use of an abhorrent new weapon the production and proliferation of which appeared imminent is an historic step for humanity. It represents the first time since 1868, when the use of exploding bullets was banned, that a weapon of military interest has been banned before its use on the battlefield and before a stream of victims gave visible proof of its tragic effects”. The UK signed up to this ban and should behave as an example to others rather than ignoring the spirit of the ban.
As the UK / MoD cannot guarantee that Dragonfire will not be used to cause permanent blindness then the weapon is clearly in breach of the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons and should be withdrawn from the DSEi Arms Fair immediately.
Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons
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.
In the employment of laser systems, the High Contracting Parties shall take all feasible precautions to avoid the incidence of permanent blindness to unenhanced vision. Such precautions shall include training of their armed forces and other practical measures.
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.
For the purpose of this protocol “permanent blindness” means irreversible and uncorrectable loss of vision which is seriously disabling with no prospect of recovery. Serious disability is equivalent to visual acuity of less than 20/200 Snellen measured using both eyes.