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Gray Zone Tactics Playbook: Laser Dazzling

Dazzlers are non-lethal laser weapons meant to cause temporary blindness in humans or confound sensors. Recently employed against the Philippine Coast Guard, laser dazzlers have also been employed against U.S. and Australian military helicopters and surveillance planes operating in the region.
Gaute Friis | SEPTEMBER 11, 2023
Gray Zone Tactics Playbook: Laser Dazzling
CCG 5205 firing laser at Philippine Coast Guard cutter BRP Malapascua, February 6, 2023 (Source: Philippine Coast Guard)

Gaute Friis

Analyst

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Dazzlers are an emerging category of non-lethal but potentially dangerous weapons and a relatively recent addition to China's gray zone arsenal. They can be used as a harassment tool; for destroying sensitive electro-optical sensors as an electronic warfare component; or as a weapon of psychological warfare. 

Dazzlers are not themselves considered illegal. The U.S. military—which refers to them as "non-lethal optical distractors"—considers them an essential capability to "minimize fatalities,  protect the innocent and limit collateral damage" when the alternative is lethal force, with the caveat that:

"Prior to fielding, all previously and currently fielded lasers or distracter devices have undergone legal reviews to ensure compliance with obligations assumed by the U.S. under applicable treaties, customary international law, and the law of armed conflict."

China has used dazzlers to temporarily blind the crew of other countries' ships. Because dazzlers have both physical and psychological effects their use against vessels at sea is hazardous, eroding their crews' ability to navigate and react to maritime contingencies.

As detailed in our "going dark" playbook entry, a Chinese Coast Guard cutter used a dazzler to harass a Philippine resupply escort mission on February 6th, 2023.

The Philippine Coast Guard later clarified that was the second time this had occurred during a resupply mission.

China has also employed dazzlers against U.S. and Australian aircraft since at least 2018, as documented in incidents over the Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Arafura Sea, and near the Horn of Africa

Note: Any use of lasers to permanently blind personnel is illegal under Protocol IV (Blinding Laser Weapons) under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which China joined in 1998.

See the rest of the gray zone playbook here.

Gaute Friis

Gaute is a Defense Innovation Scholar at Stanford's Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.

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