Giving “Laser Focus” New Meaning

The Marine Corps is unprepared for the newest tactic of civil unrest events

>>Capt Deavenport is an Intelligence Officer currently serving as an Olmsted Scholar in Bangkok, Thailand.

When adversaries combine commercially available products with a little ingenuity, they can create new attack pathways that are difficult to counteract. Over the last decade, anti-government protestors around the world have done exactly that during large-scale civil unrest events. In Hong Kong, protestors used traffic cones and leaf blowers to counter the effects of tear-gas canisters. In Portland, OR, protestors used umbrellas to hide their collective faces from surveillance cameras. In Beirut, Lebanon, and Nantes, France, protestors used tennis rackets and hockey sticks to hit tear-gas canisters back at police. Perhaps the most concerning new tactic, however, is protestors using hundreds of laser pointers simultaneously to blind and disrupt law enforcement officers and government security personnel.

Given its effectiveness against law enforcement in places like Egypt, Chile, Hong Kong, Iraq, and the United States, the use of laser pointers as a form of non-violent resistance has been shared widely on the world’s social media platforms. A practical assessment indicates that the tactic will likely be a feature of future civil unrest events in countries around the world. As an expeditionary force-in-readiness that often operates in environments of civil unrest, the Marine Corps should be concerned about this emerging tactic for the risk it poses to our forces. As it stands, Marines are neither equipped nor trained to operate in this emerging threat environment. The Marine Corps has an obligation to address this problem at the Service level.

Understanding the Threat
Lasers were once considered to be little more than science-fiction, popularized by multimedia franchises like Star Wars and 007. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration narrowed the delta between fiction and reality when they considered using lasers as part of a broader ballistic missile defense platform, though researchers concluded that the technology was still decades away from military use. Today, great powers around the world are studying the potential applications of laser technology in modern directed energy weapons. Across the national security and defense community, the discourse on laser technology remains a subject of intrigue for its numerous potential applications.

For people outside of the defense establishment, however, laser technology is most commonly associated with a simple office presentation tool. The laser pointer is a seemingly innocuous device that became affordable, ubiquitous, and commercially available in the 1990s. Today, consumers can purchase a new, high-powered laser pointer online for less than $30. Aside from the warning in the fine print to “avoid direct eye exposure,” these devices are sold to the general public with very few legal restrictions. Not surprisingly, the disruptive use of laser pointers is a growing issue.

In the United States, the most common incidents of laser disruptions are reported by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In 2020 alone, the FAA reported 6,852 laser incidents targeting commercial aircraft in the United States, 20 of which resulted in unspecified injuries to pilots or aircrews.1 In 2021, the number of reported incidents swelled to 8,550 incidents, 46 of which resulted in injuries. While it is a federal crime to aim a laser at an aircraft in the United States, the FAA laser incident reports suggest that the law has done little to mitigate the practice. In many cases, individuals may not realize the damage that a $30 device can cause. The data points listed above represent cases in which laser pointers disrupted the operations of commercial airlines, but they represent only isolated incidents, absent any coordination or concentrated effects. What happens when laser pointers are used as objects of resistance on a larger scale?

Since 2013, civilian protestors around the world have embraced laser pointers as useful tools for non-violent resistance, particularly in the context of anti-government protests. In places like Egypt, Chile, Hong Kong, Iraq, and the United States, protestors used hundreds of laser pointers in a coordinated fashion to confuse police officers, scramble facial recognition cameras, and deter people from taking photos amid periods of anti-government unrest.In one viral video from 2019, a crowd of protestors in Santiago, Chile, appeared to “shoot down” a police quadcopter by concentrating their lasers against the remote aircraft. When used against people, like police officers or government security forces, laser pointers can cause both temporary and irreversible damage to the eyes. Such is the nature of truly devastating threats: they are non-threatening enough to not be taken seriously but dangerous enough to do real harm.

There is evidence to suggest that lasers could revolutionize protesting around the world because they offer several advantages for protestors in the modern era.First, laser pointers are affordable and widely available. When protesters gathered in Cairo, Egypt, in 2013 to celebrate the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, street vendors reportedly sold laser pointers to protestors “just for fun,” apparently not yet aware of the dangerous potential that exists when many laser pointers are used together.4 In Hong Kong, laser pointers were distributed en masse for protection against police amidst widespread anti-government protests. Second, laser pointers can disrupt (or seriously harm) law enforcement personnel with the blinding effects of concentrated light. However, protestors see lasers as a novel tool for non-violent resistance because they present a relatively low risk to physical objects, at least compared to rocks, broken glass, or firearms. Third, in the age of artificial intelligence and facial recognition cameras, lasers can also protect the identities of the protestors in the crowd. When a single laser hits a camera lens, it drastically shifts the exposure and effectively washes out the image, making identification of protestors in a crowd almost impossible. Ultimately, the mass use of laser pointers offers an accessible and effective tool for protestors around the world to resist government crackdowns in a way that is generally perceived as non-violent while also offering some protection against surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology.

The available data on the disruptive use of laser pointers highlights some useful patterns to better characterize the threat. First, among the various laser pointers that are commercially available, the 532-nanometer green laser is the most widely used device in recent protests around the world. The green laser, compared to colors like red, purple, or blue, is the most visible to the human eye and is therefore the most preferred type. Indeed, the FAA data cited earlier indicates that more than 88 percent of the reported laser incidents involved green lasers. Additionally, we know that the power output for commercially available lasers can range from a meager 5 milli-watts (mW) all the way up to 1,000 mW.5 Consider this excerpt from the American Academy of Opthalmology:

If a laser with less than five milliwatts of output power is directed at someone’s eye, that person can blink or turn away without suffering an eye injury. However, the natural protective mechanisms of the eye—such as the blink reflex—are ineffective against lasers with output power greater than five milliwatts, and severe retinal damage may occur, even after momentary exposure.6

Green laser pointers are inexpensive, prolific, and can be sold at power outputs that are empirically dangerous to the human eye.

Second, the advent of digital mobilization suggests that protestors in future civil unrest events will integrate the tactics and technologies from other protestors around the world. A 2020 article in the New York Times entitled, “Why Protest Tactics Spread Like Memes,” offers several examples to reinforce this point.In Hong Kong during 2019, video showed protestors racing to place orange traffic cones over tear gas canisters to keep the smoke from spreading; in Minneapolis, MN, nine months later, protestors did the same thing. In Hong Kong during 2019, protestors used leafblowers to disperse tear gas; in Portland, OR, a year later, protestors did the same thing. There are several more examples, but they all lead to the same conclusion. The widespread use of social media, coupled with digital mobilization, means that successful civil unrest tactics will spread and increase in scale.

Taken together, we know three fundamental things about this emerging threat: protestors are most likely to use 520-nm green lasers, the power output of a single laser can range anywhere from 5-1,000 mW, and protestors are likely to use this technology in civil unrest zones around the world because of digital mobilization. This data alone is sufficient to mount a response to this threat. A single laser can cause blurry vision or permanent blindness, but the mobilization of hundreds, or even thousands, of lasers could effectively neutralize a ground force, particularly one without the appropriate personal protective equipment and training. Surely then, the Marine Corps is well-prepared to meet this threat—right?

Herein lies the problem: the Marine Corps’ standard-issue, authorized eyewear offers no laser eye protection. None. The current standard-issue glasses feature 2.4-millimeter polycarbonate lenses for ballistic protection, 100 percent ultraviolet protection, and fog-prevention treatment for those steamy Camp Lejeune field exercises. However, they offer zero protection against laser devices in any wavelength. In fact, the Marine Corps’ governing document on laser safety programs, Marine Corps Order 5104.1C, fails to even mention laser protective equipment or training for forward-deployed forces.8 The current eyewear arguably met the minimum eye protection requirements of battlefields a decade ago, but the threat landscape has meaningfully changed.

Bear in mind that the Marine Corps, compared to its adjacent services, is perhaps the most likely to operate during civil unrest events on foreign soil. Consider, for example, the missions assigned to the MEU. Among other things, the MEU is assigned the mission essential tasks of performing non-combatant evacuation operations, airfield seizure operations, humanitarian assistance, and stability operations. All these missions virtually ensure close contact with host-nation civilians amid varying degrees of civil unrest. The evacuation of Kabul in August of 2021 is just one example. It is a matter of when, not if, Marines will operate against protestors armed with laser pointers.

The other services acknowledged this threat years ago. In 2018, the Air Force signed a nearly $200 million contract to provide laser eye protection for their pilots and air crews. The Army issued a pre-solicitation for next-generation eye protection and the Coast Guard subsequently initiated a joint research project for low-cost laser eye-protection glasses.

To mitigate this threat, the Marine Corps must first purchase enhanced eye protection for threat laser devices in both combat and training situations. This eyewear should provide sufficient protection to prevent permanent eye damage and temporary effects (glare, flash blindness, etc.) from laser devices while minimizing visual acuity degradation. It is worth mentioning that the Marine Corps’ current eyewear supplier already produces a laser protective lens that blocks 99 percent of 532-nanometer green lasers. This piece of gear, or a similar model, should be fielded to Marine forces across the air-ground task force at the soonest opportunity.

Second, the Marine Corps must develop and integrate training modules to prepare Marines for the new tactics used by modern protestors. The San Francisco Police Department recently surveyed their patrol officers and asked how they would respond to the hypothetical use of laser pointers during protests.Some officers said they considered laser pointers to be non-threatening distractions, while others said they viewed lasers as dangerous weapons and would respond with force. Without any standardization in terms of training and equipment, it is not at all surprising that the responses among San Francisco police officers were inconsistent.

If the same question were posed to our Marines, I expect that we would get the same results: inconsistency and subjectivity. If Marines were sent to reinforce an embassy in a given hotspot today and protestors gathered at the gates with 532-nanometer green laser pointers, would Marines simply dismiss it (not likely), react with non-lethal force, or react with lethal force? No Marine on the ground or in the air should have to make this decision absent any training or guidance, much less without the proper protective equipment. Wherever possible, the Marine Corps has an obligation to reduce uncertainty, subjectivity, and inconsistency through realistic and threat-informed training.

From my perspective, the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Operations Training Group structure is the best vector to provide this training for pre-deployment forces. The Expeditionary Operations Training Group already provides tailored, pre-deployment training packages to prepare units for the requirements of the respective geographic combatant commands. Once Marines are equipped appropriately, it would take only minor revisions to the Expeditionary Operations Training Group training framework to provide a basic introduction to modern laser pointer tactics, protective equipment, and mitigation techniques.

In the context of the world’s dynamic and ambitious threats, it is easy to dismiss the laser pointer as little more than an office presentation tool, but its emerging applications will almost certainly challenge future Marines. Now is a fitting time for the organization to make a clear-eyed assessment of its standard issue protective eyewear and associated training to meet the shifting threat landscape.


1. Federal Aviation Administration, “Laser Incidents,” Federal Aviation Administration, November 23, 2021,

2. Alan Taylor, “The Lasers of Discontent,” The Atlantic, November 23, 2019,

3. Jeremiah Kim, “Lasers: The Future of Protests,” Harvard Political Review, March 19, 2020,

4. “Egypt crisis: Why are Cairo Protesters Using Laser Pens?” BBC News, July 4, 2013,

5. Big Lasers, “Differences in Laser Pointer Output Powers,” Big Lasers, March 11, 2013,

6. Ari Soglin, “Is Your Laser Pointer Dangerous Enough to Cause Eye Injury?” American Academy of Opthalmology, June 22, 2018,

7. Tracy Ma et al., “Why Protest Tactics Spread Like Memes,” New York Times, July 31, 2020,

8. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Order 5104.1C, “Navy Laser Hazards Control Program,” (Washington, DC: May 2008).

9. “Lasers: The Future of Protests.”