Marines In Iraq Decry Lack Of Laser System

By RICHARD LARDNER The Tampa Tribune

Published: Jan 31, 2007

TAMPA - Civilian casualties in Iraq's volatile Anbar province would have been greatly reduced over the past 20 months if an inexpensive, hand-held laser system had been sent to the Marines operating there, according to a series of e-mail messages between troops in the field and acquisition officials in suburban Washington.

The decision to deny delivery of the Compact High Power Laser Dazzler has touched off an internal debate, the messages reveal, with highly charged phrases such as "unnecessary carnage" being used to describe the situation.

The dispute also has reached MacDill Air Force Base, where the Marine Corps component at U.S. Central Command has questioned why those on the front lines would be refused a badly needed system.

The dazzler is a nonlethal tool for steering unwelcome vehicles and people away from U.S. checkpoints and convoys. Without it, U.S. forces must open fire when Iraqis fail to heed warning signals and get too close.

This "escalation of force" approach, repeated countless times since the war began nearly four years ago, has resulted in deaths and injuries to innocent civilians mistaken as the enemy.

There is no way to know exactly how many, however, because no Iraqi or U.S. government office publicly releases statistics on Iraqi civilian casualties. Nonetheless, curbing the number of unintended casualties is key to demonstrating the country is becoming more secure.

Made by LE Systems, a small company in Hartford, Conn., the compact laser creates a wall of intense green light that stops or redirects oncoming traffic by temporarily impairing the driver's vision.
'Urgent Universal Need'

In June 2005, Marine Corps leaders in western Iraq filed an "urgent universal need" request for several hundred of LE Systems' dazzlers, which cost about $8,000 each. The request, which was repeated less than a year later, has gone unfulfilled.

Officials at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia cited unmet test requirements, needed safety reviews and questions about the production capabilities of the laser's manufacturer.

Marines in Iraq, however, have called those reasons poor excuses that failed to recognize the dangerous environment they're working in.

The frustrations spilled over in a lengthy Dec. 9 e-mail from Col. Martin LaPierre, a senior officer with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, to Marine Col. Kirk Hymes, who runs the Pentagon office overseeing nonlethal weapons.

"We can count quite accurately the exact number of EOF [escalation of force] incidents and friendly and innocent casualties that would have been prevented if forces in Al Anbar had had effective dazzlers," LaPierre told Hymes.

Senior Marines in Iraq are "simply unwilling to allow the unnecessary [escalation of force] carnage to continue when [commercially available] solutions are and have been sitting there for years," he wrote.

In his message, however, LaPierre does not provide the number of casualties that could have been avoided. He did not return e-mail seeking comment.

Hymes did not return telephone calls.

A military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said close to 50 innocent Iraqis were killed and nearly 140 were wounded in Anbar between March and December by Marines who did not have the dazzlers as an alternative to lethal force.
Buying Direct

Anticipating what he called a "total process failure," LaPierre said the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force several months ago bypassed the normal procedures for acquiring gear and used money from its own budget to buy 28 of the lasers from LE Systems.

Titus Casazza, president of LE Systems, said the lasers were delivered to Iraq. The purchase, he said, was backed by Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the highest-ranking Marine in Iraq.

However, officials at Quantico directed the Marine force not to use them, Casazza said.

About 36 miles outside Washington, Quantico is home to several Marine Corps offices, including the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, that make decisions about what kind of war-fighting equipment to buy.

Responding to questions from the Tribune, Maj. Timothy Keefe, a spokesman at Quantico, described the request for the LE Systems laser as a "potential materiel solution."

Without naming the laser, Keefe said the product was "subjected to the mandatory testing process" for battlefield equipment.

"It did not successfully pass the prescribed tests, and it was not approved for use under the tactical conditions expected for its potential employment," he said.

Keefe said the Marine Corps "procured and fielded" another brand and model of laser that had passed the testing and approval process. He did not name the product or the company that makes it.
Fueling Controversy

Both the purchase of an alternative laser and the testing of the laser from LE Systems have fueled the controversy.

In his Dec. 9 e-mail, LaPierre identified the other laser as the GBD-IIIC, which is built by B.E. Meyers of Redmond, Wash.

The Marines in Iraq did not want the Meyers laser, according to LaPierre, because it is not as powerful or effective as the one produced by Casazza's company.

Nonetheless, limited quantities of the GBD-IIIC began arriving in Iraq a few weeks after LaPierre sent his message.

Overall, the Marine Corps has purchased 400 GBD-IIICs, according to Len Blasiol, a civilian official with the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

Dave Shannon, director of engineering and new product development at Meyers, said he has heard no complaints about his company's product, which he said is made to withstand the rigors of combat. The Meyers laser costs less than $10,000 each, he said.

"We had a package already designed for the military," Shannon said.
A Higher Standard?

LaPierre challenged the objectivity of the government's testing of the LE Systems compact laser, claiming it was held to higher standards in an effort to find shortcomings.

The tests were done in August by the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va.

"Was the GBD-III treated similarly as it passed through so easily?" LaPierre wrote. "Probably not."

On Jan. 18, Lt. Col. Thaddeus Jankowski, a branch chief with Central Command's Marine Corps component, sent an e-mail to Blasiol asking why Quantico was not pursuing the system the troops wanted.

"I've seen independent reports and other data that seem reasonable that [the Compact High Power Laser Dazzler] is a superior capability," he wrote. "Yet 18 months later you are sole-sourcing to someone else?"

Blasiol referred questions about the message to Quantico's public affairs office.

Before a laser system can be used by the Navy or the Marine Corps, it must be approved by the Laser Safety Review Board, a panel that meets periodically to make sure lasers adhere to established safety requirements.

The GBD-IIIC received conditional approval from the board, but the LE Systems laser was never examined, said Robert Aldrich, a laser safety specialist at Dahlgren naval center.

Aldrich said testing at Dahlgren revealed safety issues, but those conclusions were preliminary and did not prevent officials at Quantico from asking the board to review the LE Systems laser on an urgent-need basis.

"They never at any time asked for permission to use the system," Aldrich said.

In his e-mail, Jankowski said the Army and U.S. Special Operations Command have approved use of the LE Systems laser and those endorsements should be good enough for the Marine Corps.

"In a joint world, one standard is supposed to apply whenever possible," he wrote.

In a Dec. 24 letter to Zilmer informing him that the 28 Compact High Power Laser Dazzlers were on the way to Iraq, Casazza said all the adjustments recommended by the testers at the Dahlgren center had been made. Several of the changes were minor, such as putting the company's address on the side of the device.

The laser had not been examined by the review board, a process Casazza said he has no control over. But he told Zilmer that when used properly, his company's laser is safe and causes no eye damage.

According to the letter, Casazza said he learned of the needed fixes from the Marines in Iraq because his requests to Quantico offices for a copy of the Dahlgren test report have been refused.

In an interview, Casazza rejected suggestions from officials at Quantico that LE Systems could not produce enough lasers to meet demands.

"It's not an issue," he said.

Reporter Richard Lardner can be reached at (813) 259-7966 or rlardner@tampatrib.com.

Ellie