According to the pulp sci-fi novels of yesteryear, we should be colonizing space, have flying cars, jetpacks, and of course, laser guns! However, the reality is that we are still stuck in orbit of Earth, no flying cars unless your drunk, jetpacks set your pants on fire. However, you would think that laser-based weaponry would be possibly. Soldiers today carry IR aiming lasers on their M4 assault carbines via the AN/PEQ-5. Despite a few next-gen toys, our soldiers are using a rifle designed in the 1960's, while their opponents are using a gun developed in 1940's! Where is the blaster that sci-fi promised me?The US military is working on deploying lasers in the role of munitions interception, and are massive systems at the moment, not even close to a blaster.
Faded Memories...or...the best Christmas of all time (1986)!
One of the reasons that I really felt laser weaponry was just around the corner was it seemed that high-tech was all over the place in the 1980's. When I was a kid, all the cool sci-fi characters had Blasters, Battlestat Galatica, Buck Rogers, Boba Fett and everyone's favorite Nerf Herder: Han Solo.My favorite G.I. Joe was Flash during my childhood, and he had the uber-cool XMLR-1A laser rifle. However, the best thing about Growing up in the SDI Reagan-80's, you really believed at backpack laser were around the corner. After all, we had Lazer-Tag, why couldn't the Army zap the bad guys? If you grew up in the 1980's, than you may have played, or owned the two coolest toys of the mid-1980's, Photon and Lazer Tag.
For those of you that do not know what Photon and Lazer Tag are, than I pity you. Photon and Laser Tag were battery powered guns and sensors that fired invisible IR beams at sensors placed on the body. This was great fun, but they ate batteries.Photon and Lazer Tag differed in their look, not tech. Photon used an all-over body sensor system, with a helmet, chest, and I believe gun sensor to score hits, however, the Photon system was less refined and prone to sensor issues than Lazer Tag, weighted about 18 pounds,and plus, it looked kind of dorky when compared to the Worlds of Wonder Lazer Tag system. I must confess, I thought the Lazer Tag was the uber-shit back in the day, it had the cool gun, vests, rifle, and the helmet, and a much better cartoon than the Photon live-action series. For years, we would head off into the woods, and fire invisible beams at one another...we painted our gear and gun to cool more military. On birthdays, we would pile into a car and go to the Tulsa area Photon center for hyper-sugared fun.
Here are some pics of what the original Photon centers looked like around 1987:
The sign of any good Birthday in '86
The battlefield, several levels
The gear-up area...red or green
The lit up battlefield
An used ID passcard
There is no way in words to tell how cool these sites were back in the day. For those of us that remember the original TRON, than these indoor fields were similar, neon lights, futuristic buildings, fog, smoke, screaming, laser sounds...epic. I played at two Photon centers, one in Tulsa on Memorial street, and another in Albuquerque, New Mexico (I still have my ID pass!), both were some of the best times. I can still recall, going into the staging area, putting on a paper surgery hat, donning a red or green helmet, and then piling into the gate waiting for the call. Ah...those were the days...Then it all ended within a few years, the fad died and Worlds of Wonder went belly up, along all of the Photon centers closed...while simulator laser tag like systems are still around, the majority of people, like me, switched to Paintball and/or AirSoft. A verison of these old IR force-on-force training system is still used by the US military in the form of the MILES gear.
So, where the hell is my Han Solo blaster?
Why haven't our militaries using lasers on the battlefield? Here are my "theories":
The M-4 assault carbine costs the US military about $2,000 and has to issue this to thousands of troops. Imagine, taking a Laser Rifle that costs five or six figures and issuing it to half a million troops. Then add in replacement battery/power packs, chargers, and replacement weapons. That means billions invested in a new technology, that may not be as good as the bullet.
The Want & Need
The simple fact is that has to be a need for a Military Laser Rifle over the current KEW weapons we use to today. And the Congress, taxpayers, and President want the US military to have it. They have not replaced the M-16/M-4 yet. Is a laser better than an M-4 or even the AK-47? The modern ammunition punches through body armor, when it doesn't, the lab geeks design something deadlier.For example, when the 9mm MP5 SMG was not longer cutting it in close warfare, the FN P90, H&K MP7, and M-4 CQBR were developed to fill the gap. There simply no need for a Laser Rifle at the present time. When we push out to the stars, if we met a xenomorph that an AK cannot bring down, then we will have Plasma Rifle in the 40 watt range.
The Dirty Reality of Soldier's Life
The reality of a soldier's life during combat sucks. Rain, mud, heat, cold, and poor cover. Would the new Laser Rifles be rugged enough to deal with these factors? What about being dropped, hit, and used to bash the enemy's skull in? Could a soldier on a isolated afghan mountain be able to repair it without a degree in electrical engineering? After all, in the 1960's when the US rushed the M-16 into battle in the harsh environment of Vietnam, soldiers died when their weapons didn't work. The US soldier began taking the AK off of dead VC. Would lasers kill more of our own then the enemy? According to the Atomics Rockets website, handheld laser weapons would have lens, and resemble a old-school camcorder than a Phaser. Nothing brittle survives the riggers of combat...
Heat, Thermal blooming, Indirect fire, and DEW Trail
Laser DEW systems have four major weakness: heat, thermal booming, indirect fire, and they leave DEW trail. The conditions in the local atmosphere of the world you are fighting on, effects the range and lethality of the beam, like fog, dust, and smoke, this is general called thermal blooming. The beam of a laser leaves a trail of ionized particles that could be used to track the sources of shooter. Bad if you're a sniper. Along with a tractable DEW trail is the amount of heat that laser weapon would bleed off, allowing for thermal to pick up the positions of soldiers. Cooling these laser weapons would add to the complexity of the weapon and the power requirements. Lastly, bullets have odd physics, riccohet off of walls, missing targets, and artillery shells use indirect fire and arching to destroy the enemy. Lasers are focused and direct for better or worse. What is keeping handheld laser weaponry in this section is most likely the cooling needed between firings, such systems would bulky, add weight, and increase the price tag.
For those of us that grew up with Star Wars and Star Trek, we watched brightly colored bolts of deadly laser energy darting across the battlefield. Saly, that's false. The truth is, that the majority of laser DEW systems would be invisble to the naked eye, and unlike bullets, the soldiers could not where the beam hit or who is firing at you with some sort of sensor gear that track DEW lines. You can imagine, a combat patrol in a urban enviroment, then suddenly one goes down, with any bullet report, or even muzzle flash to work from. Not my idea of a good time.
"Hey buddy, got a Double A?"
One of the things that holds back the electric car is the battery. The Tesla Roadster can go about 250 miles, the new Nissan Leaf gets about 100 miles while my Corolla can go 400 on a single tank. How many "shots" would an infantryman get out of their laser? Would soldiers have to be hunting about for a power-pack or loaded down with fuel cells? If the laser charge finally goes out, do the soldiers carry a spare bullet-firing gun or pistol? Like the M-79 grenadiers during Vietnam? Would Special Operations units, like SEALs be able to use these DEW rifles on long-range RECON missions? According to the Atomic Rockets website, a handheld laser weapon would have fire a beam or pulse of one kilojoule, and the battery storage would converstatively be about 50-100 pulses, or if applied to a beam, then it would be measured in amount of time beforel the weapon overheated, which would add cooling systems to the laser rifle. This increases demand on the power source to operate the cooling system, and air-cooling simply takes too-long, unless you're on Hoth...
Ammunition companies, firearm websites, and soldiers endless debate about which bullet is best for the kill, and no likes to hit a target and then see it get back up (just read Blackhawk Down). Unlike other DEW systems, lasers need to hit the target with an continuous focused beam, inflicting thermal and physical damage...if the target stays still, for anyone who as used the Spartan Laser in HALO, knows all about that. It takes about a kilojoule against a normal human, more if they had cerameric armor to burn through. This calls into question, if a laser DEW system would be an replacement for something like the AK47. When a soldier as a target dead-to-rights, and squeezes the trigger, that target needs to be gone, not suffering from a sunburn or dancing like Muhammad Ali.
Examples of Realistic Laser in Sci-Fi
Lasers and other similar DEW are projected in Sci-Fi has blasters that shot a bolt of laser energy, and knock the enemy down dead. Some have gotten more of the reality of the laser beam.
Firefly-in the 13th episode "Heart of Gold", a wealth villain is shown to have custom-built laser pistol. During the attack on the whorehouse, his laser-pistol quickly runs out of power, and is taken prisoner.
Firefly-the Alliance are the only ones to use Laser weaponry, partly because the alliance government made lasers illegal for private citizens. Also, frontier settlements are unable to keep the up with the high power demands, spare parts, and a good ole bullet does the job just fine, thank you very much.
Akira-when Neo-Toyko is under attack and all hell breaks out, the military breaks out portable laser cannons, called the Arasaka HLR-12X. These are massive devices, with a battery pack, and a narrow beam.
HALO 3/ODST-the elite of the UNSC have access to the so-called M6"Spartan Laser". This is a slow charging, solid-state or electron-free beam that relays on battery that lasts for five shots.
ALIENS: Colonial Marine technical Manuel by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood-this is manual features some of the best science on the uses of DEW weaponry ever written. Buy it.
The Forever War-the military sci-fi classic has the soldiers using "laser fingers" mounted to their powered armor. They behave like cutting beams
Star Trek: TOS-"The Cage"- The original pilot for Star Trek featured landing parties using the Mark One Laser Pistol that seemed to more realistic than the traditional phasers
The Classic Battlestar Galactica- In the original frakking 1970's series, the Colonial Warriors used a large blaster and for a few episodes, when the warriors would hit a Cylon, there was only an explosion on the other end, no laser bolt sailing through the air.
Goldfinger (1964)- The laser scene with 007...need I say more?
Endangered Species-This is my own book, still being written. The American Special Forces Armored Power Suit unit uses a portable 40mW electron-free powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and fires in the 2.5-3.5 micron range.