Today’s laser abuse summit in Canberra convened by Customs and attended by the AFP, ASIO, CASA, Airservices and the Attorney-General’s office faces much tougher issues than fools pointing bright beams of light at aircraft.
When former transport minister Mark Vaile grandstanded an amendment to the Civil Aviation and Aviation Transport Security Acts in Federal Parliament last year to supposedly toughen the laws against laser attacks, it resulted in penalties less severe than those for dropping rocks off overpasses onto cars and trucks.
The chances of any magistrate imposing Vaile’s breathlessly hyped maximum two-year jail penalty on an idiot who lasers a jet are about nil.
Yet it created federal laws that would override severe state laws like those of South Australia which provide for 14 years jail for affecting the safe operation of a flight, or life if the offence is proven to have been committed “with reckless indifference” to the safety of those onboard.
The lasers on open sale in stores and mailed into the country to online buyers are high tech flamethrowers. The most powerful of these freely available devices claim to be able to ignite cardboard at a range of 70 metres.
While CASA says there have been around 300 laser attacks on aircraft in Australia in the past year, there have also been numerous instances of lasers flicking across race horses, football players, and into the eyes of train, truck and car drivers.
These are often laser pointers like those used to bore people to death at Powerpoint presentations, or waved in the air at rave parties.
At short range, lasers can do even more harm to a truck driver than a pilot, because the fool pointing it could get a line of sight into the driver’s retinas at ranges where permanent blinding becomes possible.
In aircraft, the serious danger arises from dazzling reflections within the cockpit, temporarily blinding or distracting pilots at crucial moments when they need to monitor and adjust their speed, altitude, rate of descent, glide slope, drift and heading as they approach the runway.
If the laser idiot problem seems bad now, consider this: the known research and development programs into directed energy weapons worldwide tells us much worse is to come.
These programs also involve locking tightly focused microwave beams on battle ships, incoming missiles and infantry. Why bother trying to shoot an enemy combatant if you can set him and everything around him on fire? These programs seek the scaling down of super ray technology to the same portability as consumer lasers, and may replace the untidy consequences of tactical nuclear weapons in the arsenals of military powers and terrorists in the decades to come.
So whatever steps Australia takes to curb commercially available lasers, and punish laser waving idiots, needs to also encompass the directed energy devices that will follow lasers as sure as sunrise follows night.