In a significant move to enhance the safety of aircrew members operating various U.S. Air Force aircraft globally, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center's Human Systems Division is currently in the process of upgrading protective eyewear.
The initiative, led by the Aircrew Laser Eye Protection Program, aims to safeguard pilots from laser threats, introducing a combined laser and ballistic protection capability for the first time.
The eyewear, collectively known as the Block 3 family of products, comprises eight different devices, including separate day and night spectacles, ballistics spectacles, and visors designed to integrate with night vision goggles. This upgrade is a crucial step in ensuring the well-being of pilots, as improper protection could not only compromise their ability to fly and land safely but also jeopardize their careers.
Captain Pete Coats, lead program manager for the Human System’s Division’s Aircrew Laser Eye Protection Program, emphasized the importance of providing the right eyewear to every aircrew member. “The health of the eye is so important to our pilots…The consequences of getting lasered without having proper protection could not only prevent the pilot from flying and landing an aircraft safely, but it could also cost them their career. So, our goal is to ensure the right eyewear is available to everyone.”
The devices will be available for all aircrew, with the exception of those operating U-2 and F-35 Lightning II aircraft.
The selection of eyewear protection will be mission-dependent, with factors such as altitude and aircraft type influencing the choice. Mark Beer, Aircrew Laser Eye Protection Program deputy program manager, highlighted the varying needs of aircrew members, stating, "If flying low and slow or hovering like a helicopter or CV-22 Osprey, aircrew would prefer to have ballistic protection as well as laser protection."
“However, if you’re in a fighter aircraft or flying in a bomber at high altitude, the chances of you needing ballistic protection are not nearly as high,” he added.
Apart from increased protection, the upgraded night eyewear will allow more natural light through the lens, thereby enhancing visibility for crew members during nighttime operations.
A crucial aspect of the eyewear development process has been collaboration with stakeholders. The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Human Systems Division worked closely with the Air Force Research Laboratory and the U.S. intelligence community to assess threats facing aircrew members and determine the necessary protective technologies.
The eyewear upgrade project aims to field more than 42,000 devices to Air Force units by 2027, addressing the growing concern of military-grade laser threats. These lasers, colloquially known as "dazzlers," emit powerful beams of light that can travel significant distances and temporarily blind pilots, posing serious risks to aircrew safety.
The Pentagon's decision to develop protective eyewear follows a global trend of Chinese military forces reportedly harassing others with lasers.
In 2018, the U.S. formally complained to China over incidents of pilots being irritated by lasers from a Chinese base in Djibouti. The Pentagon highlighted the serious nature of these incidents, requesting an investigation by China.
Recent events include the U.S. Navy reporting a Chinese military warship firing a military-grade laser at a U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance aircraft, deeming the action "unsafe and unprofessional." The Australian Defence Force also disclosed an incident in which a Chinese warship targeted a Royal Australian Air Force patrol aircraft with a powerful laser in February 2022, describing it as "unsafe and unprofessional." China, however, denies the allegations, emphasizing compliance with international law.