The US Air Force (USAF) is dealing with what the service calls a “sudden surge” in incidents involving lasers targeting military aircraft while in flight.
The light beams are not being used for espionage, nor are they an advanced weapon system from an adversarial power. Instead, the lasers are commercially available devices used for classroom presentations or recreation.
The USAF says when pointed at aircraft aloft, even the relatively weak commercial lasers pose a significant safety risk, particularly at night.
“The effect of a laser beam on pilots is like a camera flash in a pitch-black car at night, resulting in sudden disorientation and temporary blindness,” the service notes. “This risk is worse during critical phases of flight, potentially leading to the loss of aircraft and crew, thereby imperilling lives on the ground.”
The USAF’s internal law enforcement branch – the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) – notes that so-called “lasing” is a felony under US law, punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.
Civil regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2022 said the agency was tracking an increase in unauthorised laser illumination incidents across the USA, in both civil and military aviation. Some 9,500 laser strikes on aircraft were reported to the agency in 2022.
In 2021, the FAA logged a 41% increase in lasing reports compared to the previous year.
In addition to creating a flight hazard, the FAA says pilots have reported laser-related eye injuries. Since 2010, 244 injuries have been reported to the FAA in connection with lasing.
“These are not harmless pranks,” the OSI says. “There’s a risk of causing permanent visual impairment.”
Despite the growing severity of the problem, enforcement of anti-lasing rules poses a challenge to both civil and military authorities.
“FAA aviation safety inspectors… are often unable to immediately travel to the location of an incident,” the agency says.
The FAA notes there is a poor record when it comes to catching offenders in aircraft lasing incidents, in large part because of an inability to locate offenders.
Both the FAA and USAF OSI operate online tip lines where lasing incidents can be reported.