There are some technologies that are hallmarks of the future societies seen in the works of science fiction: humanoid robots, easy space travel, off-world colonies, super-computers that are self-aware, flying cars, time-traveling Deloreans, jetpacks, and of course, laser guns. These futuristic weapons span the history of science fiction, with their origins being traced back to the holy pages of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, onward today. Lasers can be seen in sci-fi heavyweights like Star Trek, Star Wars, all the way down to such classics of western cinema as Yor: Hunter from the Future and Masters of the Universe. The dream by man to use the power of light to kill is an ancient one...and any of a ten-year old boy with a magnifying glass, sunny day, and an ant hill. Yeah, we're kind of a fucked up species. Anyway, using light for warfare seemed like long-held fantasy, only recently has been made more of a reality, but not the levels that early sci-fi creators predicted. Unlike many of the directed-energy weapon (DEW) devicess pulled from science fiction, laser-based weaponry exists and by the mid-2020's, the US Army and US Navy will be fielding laser DEW devices. This has presented a challenge for FWS. While most of the fictionalized weaponry of science fiction is either impossible or theoretical at best, frickin' laser beams exist and I do not have a science background to the degree that the guys that crafts Atomic Rockets or Rocketpunk Manifesto do. For years, I promised this blogpost, but I was scared to write it and let down FWS readers that asked for...yeah, Christoper Phoenix, I'm talking about you! Especially after the failure of the last Flash Fictional Serial I did in 2012. So, for 2014, I decided to Cowboy-the-fuck-up, and write this bitch that took two months of research and writing. So, here we go: Lasers: the Killer Light!
The word LASER is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation and the term was invented by Dr. Gordon Gould in 1957. lasers are tools of the medical field, video game consoles, DVD players, and scanners that are used everyday. Lasers are tightly focused sources of light that have converted energy into the release of photons. With the proper amount of focus and power, lasers can burn holes into metal or cut bone. Laser require several key elements of design. First, lasers need a lasing medium or a source of atoms of various matter that are excited to generate light at a certain wavelength. Second, a pump source that varies from a light bulb to a nuclear explosion that excites the atoms. Third, is the laser medium that also greatly varies from crystals, to gases, to liquids. And lastly, the lens or optical resonator to focus the beam. Depending on the elements used in the construction of your laser, there will be differences on the type of beam, wavelength, its power and use.
The Different Types of Military Lasers
-Solid State Lasers
-Free Electron Lasers (FEL)
The FEL was developed by Stanford physicist John Madey in 1976, and is one of the laser classifications being evaluated by military organizations for DEW devices. The FEL uses a beam of electrons is pushed via particle accelerator to nearly the speed of light, the the electrons are moved through a field of magnets that are arranged with north and south poles facing the stream of electrons. This creates a "wiggle" in the electron stream, emitting light on a wavelength, and a change in the magnets alters the wavelength of the FEL beam. While FEL is consider one of the powerful lasers for military application, there are issue with FEL. One being the size of the laser equipment, the need for vacuum pumps, power requirements. Still, the US Navy is moving ahead with FEL laser emitters for their ships and tested the FEL laser around 2011 in the 14 KW power range.
-Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL)
Fiber Optic Laser
What Would a Laser Weapon Look Like?
Some Data on Power Output
Sometimes, it is all about perspective, and when it comes to laser weapons, we need some perspective on the power output levels being thrown around here on this blogpost. The information comes from the Popular Mechanics website.
1-10 miliwatts (mW) is equal to a current laser pointers, CD-ROMs, and DVD and ...no lethality. Sorry.
500 mW is equal to most medical lasers for cosmetic procedures
5.0 watts is equal to a laser capable of burning wood or lighting your cigar.
60 watts is equal to those laser beams you see at laser rock shows...you know, the ones where you smoke out and listen to some Led-Zeppelin while tripping on the pretty laser beams. Am I the only one here?
100 watts- is equal to the CO2 lasers used in surgical procedures
200 watts is equal to the industrial CO2 lasers.
15,000 watts equal to a beam that can burn a boat
1 kilowatt is equal to a beam that cut metal plates.
15 kilowatt is equal to the US Navy's LsWS SSL DEW.
50 kilowatts is equal to a German point-defense laser system being tested.
100 kilowatts is the goal of the US military's MILSPEC DEW devices, it is the threshold for offensive military DEW devices. Frickin' laser tanks, man!
1 megawatt is equal to the goal of the SDI spaceborne defense laser systems
The Advantages of Laser Weapons
"Dial-A-Threat" Power Levels
Speed of Light
One of the reasons often cited by the US military for developing laser weaponry is that they move at the speed of light. This allows the beam to intercept the threat instantly and allow maximum amount of dwelling time. When you see the target, you can engage the target at the same moment. Consider this: the avenage paintball field allows for the .68 ball to have a maximum velocity of 280 feet-per-second. The 5.56x45mm round that is chambered in the M4A1 carbine as a velocity of 3,100 feet-per-second. While the laser beam would move at 983,571,056 feet-per-second!
Most military lasers being developed are designed with the role of point-defense, due to the accuracy of the laser over missiles or bullets. Today, point-defense is handled by weapon systems like the Phalanx CIWS that unleashes a shit-ton of rounds at the incoming target, using the volume of fire approach to stop the threat. With the accuracy of a laser beam, especially those controlled by computers, can target the booster rocket of an incoming ICBM, the motor of suicide boat, or the tires of a suicide bomber's car, more effectively neutralizing the threat and preventing stray bullet hits.
The Disadvantages of Laser Weapons
If we examine military lasers, they are used against targets will some sort of combustible During testing, the US Army's THEL was able to take out a incoming mortar shell in about 3-4 seconds. The power output would need to be increased if the laser beam was targeting living soldiers and not shells, around a beam that was a capable of hitting our enemy infantryman with over 50,000 joules in order to burn a hole in their flesh fast enough to prevent the human from leaping out of the way of the burning sensation. That would be a person without armor...any future battlefield with laser beams as a possibility would be wearing armor to deal with it with ceramic or aerogel...that would mean we need more energy to overcome the body armor. Also, a soldier would be wearing sensors to detect the moment a laser beam made contact. To make our laser assault rifle have the level lethality needed to be battlefield capability, there be a need to increase the power requirements, much means increasing the size of the power pack. All three of these factors are linked.
The Power Pack
You'll also have the not-so-trivial task of not cooking the hands of the person using the weapon."
The History of Military Lasers
However, that would change in the 20th century when an explosion of inventors and crackpots all attempting to develop the mythical "death ray". One man who may have actually was one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Nikola Tesla. Nikola Tesla. Tesla had been fooling around with X-ray since the 1890’s, even firing x-rays across the room. It is believed that Tesla may have developed the first ruby red laser around 1893 and demonstrated the technology to the general public, and around 1918, sent pulses to the Moon. No wonder the moon people hate us! Most of this is unconfirmed, though. What is true is that Tesla was fooling around with a DEW device called the “Peace Ray” that would be a weapon to create world peace. Even on Tesla’s dead bed, he swore that he developed the weapon that, according to some sources, was more of a particle beam than a laser weapon that could reap damage on a level of WMD…but we will never know. Some sources believe that the plans for the Tesla Death Ray were stolen. The fingers have been pointed to any number of the usual suspects: aliens, MIB, Nazis, Freemasons, and the US government.
One daring directed-energy weapon system was proposed in 1929 by Hermann Oberth, and involved a massive 100-meter wide concave mirror above the Earth that could reflect sun light onto the Earth's surface. During the mid-1940's, the Nazi research facility at Hillersleben explored the possibility of an orbital weapon platform that could focus light with the power to boil oceans and burn cities. Unlike the original 1929 mirror, the "Sun Gun" would have required a mirror miles in diameter with an entire space program to construct it in orbit in sections via shuttle-like rocket spacecraft from the original 1945 Nazi concept art. During World War II, both the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese worked on “death rays’ of their own either were lasers in the true sense. Besides Tesla, two other inventors claimed that they had developed death rays. One was a German inventor forced to leave Paris with this Magnesium powered Death Ray that could stunning Pigeons from a mile away. This 1935 Death Ray looked more like a bullhorn than a ray gun. The other case of the Death Ray was from Dr. Antonio Longoria around the 1930’s, that he claimed was so deadly that it could kill some animals even behind walls. The method of the lethality came from a process that painless transformed blood into a substance that the body couldn't use. Fearing his invention would be used for evil (imagine that!) and destroyed the device and the plans. Pity.
During World War II, both the Axis powers worked on Death Ray type devices. We have to remember that this point in history, the word “laser” is not invented, and the world’s first working laser developed by Dr. Ted Maiman was still twenty years away. These Death Rays of the 2nd World War were more microwaves, particle accelerators, and even a plasma-based DE system…nothing really came of them. With the Space Race and Arms Race of the Cold War, the United States and her allies attempted to develop “space age” weaponry, from the 1960’s through the 1970’s, lasers were under considering with various amounts of funding. By the 1970’s, the USSR was actively researching both ground-based laser DEW devices and space-based lasers for us in anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) using free electron lasers. The Soviets really took the notion of laser DEW devices as a symbol of Soviet pride and technological progress. By the mid-1960’s, the Soviets were already working on Project Omega, an air defense network of laser emitters, similar to the proposed Skyguard laser area defense system by Northrop Gruman in 2012. Much of the Soviet laser testing was conducted at “Terra-3”, at the Sary Shagan base in the Kazakhstan, and began in 1965 all the way to the late 1980’s. Also, in the 1970’s, western scientists were also experimenting with laser-based weaponry. By the mid-1970’s, it was strongly assumed by NATO intelligence that the USSR had active MILSPEC laser technology, and that the West had a “laser gap”. Beginning in 1976, the US Air Force started work on an Airborne laser laboratory. The goal was to construct an airborne laser system to intercept missiles and other airborne threats.The British began their own program to develop laser technology in 1974 after a United State laser technological breakthrough in 1972 with gas-laser technology, allowing for more military-grade weapons tech. Both the British and Soviets attempt to mount “dazzler” type laser systems on naval ships as a form of defense. It seems that there was some success.
During the Falklands War of 1982, a dazzler type laser system was installed on the British carrier HMS Hermes (R12), and according to some sources, successful test in combat against Argentinian aircraft, which would be the first use of a military laser in combat….if true. Naval laser DE weapon systems were also experimented by the USSR. Around 1984 the Red Navy used a landing ship, the Foros, to test a laser that could intercept incoming missiles, while successful; the laser was more work than it was worth, causing the test to be concluded.
The Russians also tested a laser weapon system on the cargo ship Dikson in the Black Sea around 1978. The first weapons test of the cargo ship mounted laser occurred in 1980 with a 5% energy output, and most of the lethality was sucked off due to atmospheric and environmental scattering. These tests with the Dikson continued until 1985, and more of a success, and the Russian navy moved forward with plans to install lasers in a role in much the US Navy is planning now. It is believed that the only Red Navy warship fitted with a laser was a member of the Kirov class…but these are unconfirmed. However, by 1989, both of the ships were scrapped, and the naval laser plans were abandoned due to the change in the political climate of the world.
During the 1980’s, most of the attention for laser weaponry was focus on the “Star Wars” SDI program, and both the United States and the Soviet Union entered into a technologically pissing contest. While space laser platforms were being dreamed up on a scale of Moonraker, the Soviet Union had another laser program, the so-called “laser tank”, the 1K17 Szhatie. This interesting look armored vehicle was official called a “self –propelled laser vehicle" that was based off the 2S19 Msta self-propelled artillery piece, and mounted a forward looking battery of ruby laser designed to “soft kill” NATO electronics and sensors, instead of roasting infantry or burning M1 Abrams tanks. The offensive land warfare laser system experimented with by the USSR was “Sangvin", a laser DEW variant of the ZSU-23-4 AAA self-propelled artillery piece. While in the US, the US Navy MIRACL (mid-infrared advanced chemical laser) project produced a deuterium fluoride laser weapon that held a beam for 70 seconds, and by 1985, the DoD had their own dedicated laser research facility at White Sands.
Of course, the real story with 1980’s military lasers can best be summed up in three words: Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).During the heady days of the SDI program, the idea of using laser beams to knock out incoming Soviet ICBMs gave the American public and Soviet officials visions of frickin' laser beams in outer space that could zap incoming nukes before they ever reached the shores of America. However, the reality was much more grim that most common people knew. The ability of launching unmanned laser attack satellites was much more fiction than science back in the early 1980's. While the American military-industrial complex moved forward with President Reagan's plan to put lasers into orbit, there was another way.One more plausibly solution was to use ground-based powerful laser emitters to shot beams to space-based mirrors and intercept the incoming red rockets with redirect laser fire! This would have the advantage of the lasers using the power grid, and they could put into service much rapidly than the space-based laser DEW platforms. Of course, the energy would be lost between the surface and space, and MIT estimated back then that each space mirror would need to project a focused beam in the 40 MW range to damage the Soviet booster rocket skin. This would require, according to MIT, that the ground-based emitter to produce a beam in the 400 MW range! While some art of the time projected that the orbital mirror would be an out-and-out mirror, the reality was these, according to Atomic Rockets would be glorified mylar balloons.
It was also during the SDI program that the Soviets also looked at putting their own laser platforms into orbit for defensive purposes. The concern by the Reds was that if the United States could counter their ICBMs, that the US could launch their own nuclear strike without fear of a counterstrike by the Soviets. Some at the time within the USSR military believed that SDI was the first step in a all-out nuclear war to end the threat posed by the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. During the apex of SDI fever, the Soviets examined their own in-house laser development, and started a program to get their SDI system.
It was called "Polyus-Skif". The Soviet builder of their spacecraft, Energia Organization explored that very idea of space-based lasers in the 1970's in conjunction with the program to construct Soviet military space stations that were armed. However, with the cancellation of the military space stations, caused the original Soviet space laser project to be languishing on the backburner until Reagan made his SDI speech in March of 1983. That sparked the Soviets to place Polyus-Skif on high priority and funded it accordingly. In order to get their space-based laser system up before the US, the Soviets were going to cannibalize an experimental one megawatt CO2 laser off of an abandoned airborne laser project, and launch into space via their normal rockets to demonstrate the technology as well as putting the West on notice. This CO2 laser weapon was from an project in 1981 to mount a laser on a military cargo plane, their Il-76 transport plane, much like our own old airborne laser. The experimental plane was called "Beriev A-60", and only two were built with limited success. The project to put the laser into space was called "Polyus" or "pole" in Russian, and it was rushed into production, so that the laser could be transported into orbit via the new rocket, the Energia rockets developed for the Soviet space shuttle, the Buran (snowstorm in Russian).
While the plan originally was to have the Polyus laser testbed transported into via the Buran space shuttle, the shuttle project was delayed, causing the Polyus project to go to Plan B, strap the laser onto the Energia rocket and test the laser in orbit. Unlike the American SDI program, the Soviets answer to the West was actually attempting to put hardware into space, rather than talk about it. However, the grand idea of Polyus didn't work out. With the rush job on the system, the 1987 launch ended in a complete loss of the spacecraft and the space laser, crashing down into the ocean. A faulty line of code caused the wrong burn sequence and re-position of the spacecraft's nose down towards Earth and not space, sending the spacecraft back towards the Earth and a fiery end. This cause the end of the Polyus-Skif project, and any other Soviet launches of the space-based laser system.
Interestingly enough, the American Air Force had also had idea of using the NASA Space Shuttle for the SDI program. While the Space Shuttle would have been the space transport system for the majority of hardware if the SDI program had become reality, there was also the plan to arm the Space Shuttle with a laser emitter. Yes. Arming the Space Shuttle. The Air Force had visions of their own military shuttle, but that was eliminated via budget cuts, but they turned to the NASA Space Shuttle for their frickin' space laser. The plan was to mount a laser emitter in the payload bay of the shuttle(s), to act has an ASAT and ABM weapons platform. These armed shuttles would have been launched in case of increased tension combination with the likelihood of a Soviet missile launch.
Then there is the rumors that surround the Terra-3 facility and their laser "attack" on the Space Shuttle Challenger on October 10th, 1984 during STS-41-G. While it is true that the Soviets were working on ground-based anti-satellite directed energy weaponry, it is questionable that the Soviets would have taken the risk of laser-flashing the shuttle. When US scientists finally got a look at Terra-3 facility in 1989, they determined that while the USSR were working on ground-based laser artillery, it was nowhere near as powerful as the then-current US Navy MIRACL one MW hydrogen fluorite laser, and given the technology being used at Terra-3, the US scientists doubted that the facility couldn't have posed a threat. While the Soviets were working on laser weaponry of all kinds, the US military was also attempting to fill the requirements of SDI.
In 1985 at White Sands, New Mexico, the DoD opened the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility or HELSTF, and began decades of laser weapons research. By the 1990’s the new united German, embarked on a vehicle-based laser research project: HELEX. The goal of HELEX was a mobile laser platform that used a gas dynamic CO2 laser of several megawatts of power to intercept incoming missile threats. To get maximum clearance, the HELEX was going to use a Leopard MBT shell with a extended neck design to allow the laser emitter lens to poke above the trees and engage incoming air threats. The project was cancelled sometime in the mid-1990’s due to budget concerns. The HELEX along with other 1990’s laser DEW systems represented an interesting time for laser DEW development. While the threat of the big bad Soviet Union was over, Western nation, namely the United States worked to develop MILSPEC high-energy laser weapon systems. According an 1992 article, the future of laser development was being spurred on by fears in Europe and America of the breakup of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.
In 1996, the US the Israel entered into a laser project, The Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL). This deuterium fluoride laser would be tasked with point-defense against incoming rockets and mortars. Between 2001-2002, the THEL would shot down incoming threats with much success, and the THEL would pave the way for the IDF “Iron Bar” area laser DE defense system. From the mid-1990's, to the early years of the 21st century, the US increased the effectivness of the THEL system, while Boeing and the US Missile defense agency embarked on a daring laser project in 1996: the airborne laser.
The goal was to have an aloft 747 with a one megawatt chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL), advanced sensor and targeting systems that would all the powerful COIL DEW device to lock-on and burn the incoming missile in a matter of seconds. Over the course of 16 years and billions of dollars, the future looked bright for the Boeing YAL-1A testbest aircraft, the technology was proven, but the effectiveness was not. The range of interception of incoming missiles more limited that originally believed, due to atmospheric conditions. This caused the aircraft to be in closer proximity to the target that previous thought. One example given online was if the Airborne Laser was being sent to knock out an incoming Iranian missile, the aircraft would have to be inside the borders of Iran. Not good. Also, the 747 had to be within a few hundreds of miles of the launch site, and if it was a submarine launch than forgot about it. In order for the tracking system and the laser to function property, the plane had to be more or less level. All of this would mean that the Airborne Laser 747 would have to be in the right place and the right time to zap the incoming missile threat. By 2010, with costs mounting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the DoD shut down the Airborne Laser project, boxing the hardware for a future rainy day. If the Airborne Laser had been approved, there was chatter of a laser DEW being mounted to a variant of the AC-130 gunships. Another cancelled program was THEL US Army project was also cut back due to budget cuts and issues with refueling the chemical lasers, instead the US Army moved towards a mobile truck-mounted 100 KW HEL-MD project was successful tested in December of 2013, and there high hopes for this project. Also on the horizon of point-defense laser DEW devices is the Israel offspring of the cancelled THEL, the “Iron Bar”, which will work in conjunction with the missile point defense system “Iron Dome”.
Lastly, the US Navy has been working on a seaborne laser weapon system since the 1980’s, and a naval warship is a natural platform for a laser. Given the greedy nature of a laser’s appetite, a nuclear-powered ship is a good choice, and it seems that the US Navy agrees. Kratos Defense & Security Solutions was awarded the contact for $11 million dollars to build a fiber solid state laser that would use the current Phalanx CIWS point-defense system's tracking and targeting equipment to engage targets about a mile out, and zap them with one megawatt of power. Tests have been positives with the Naval LaWS DEW device engaging a incoming drone and an small boat. It is likely by the 2020's, the US Navy, Air Force, and Army will have some sort of defensive/offensive laser DEW system in place. Once again, by this point, there will be a "laser gap", and other nations are already in R&D for their own laser DEW systems.
The Mysterious Case of the Soviet 1984 Cosmonaut Laser Pistol
We all know that the Soviets had a thing for putting guns into space. The first gun in space coincides with the first man in space. When Yuri Gagarin launched into space in 1961, in his survival kit was a Makarov 9x18mm pistol. The interesting TP-82 survival space gun was carried by Cosmonauts in case of landing in a remote location in Mother Russia until 2007. However, during the Soviet obsession with frickin’ laser beam in the 1980’s, the Soviet Military Academy of Strategic Missile Forces (The USSR’s NORAD) developed a silver pistol that fired 10mm bullets loaded with zirconium, foil, oxygen, and metal salt, all element required for a pyrotechnic flash.
This flash made the little space laser pistol an optically pumped solid state laser DEW device, but the power output was minimum, about the same as an air rifle, however the pistol was not developed for offensive space warfare, but for defense. Okay, leave it to the Reds to dream this one up…they develop a weak space laser as a defensive armament for Cosmonauts under attack from spacesuit soldiers. The laser’s sole purpose was to pierce the spacesuit of the space soldiers, and allow the nature of outer space to do its grim work. In this case, it really is that ray-guns don’t kill spacemen. I assume that the Soviets were dreaming up tactical scenrios were the US and the USSR battle over their space assets, and the US deploys specialized space marines to take the Russian space platforms form them. Of course, it was all a wet dream, and nothing really became of the space pistol, it never reached beyond prototype stage, and one of the two examples is in the museum of the military academy that developed the pistol. It is reported that the space laser pistol is their most popular item.
The majority of military lasers in service today are used for aiming and identifying a target, communications, and ranging. Systems like the SOFLAM use laser beams to designate a target, and feed the information to strike aircraft, allowing for accurate pinpoint close air support. Then we have Insight Technology AN/PEQ (P=man portable E=laser Q=special) series of laser aiming module (LAM) that attach to picatinny rails on modern carbines and assault rifles, like the Colt M4A1. The small boxes on the forward section of the weapon give the soldier options on the battlefield. The latest generation of the AN/PEQ series, the 16, is equiped with an visible and IR (for night vision) laser beams for aiming, normal LED, and an IR illumination mode. When the campaign began in Afghanistan, these laser aiming devices were more rare, however, by 2014, they are common place on nearly every M4A1 carbine.
Another use for lasers is force-on-force training. Since the 1980's, the US military, along with her NATO allies have used the IR tagging system, much like the civilian "lazer tag", called MILES to train-like-you-fight. While military organizations can and do train with Airsoft and Paintball, IR systems like MILES allow for soldiers to use their own guns, with blank fire adapters, to train in combat situations. Even armored vehicle crews use a form of the MILES gear to train with OPFOR units. One of the largest armored force-on-force training ground is at 29 Palms.
Why is the Military Developing Laser Weapons?
Current Military Laser DEW Projects
The US Army's HEL MD Program
The US Army is currently testing a mobile laser DEW platform that is the offspring of the old THEL device, and is a continuation of the Army's vision of MILSPEC point-defense DEW system that is mobile to adapt to changing battlefield conditions. The HEL-MD is a testbed for that future mobile system. Currently, the HEL-MD is a mere 10KW solid-state laser emitter, and is being tested against incoming mortars. The hope is to upgrade to a 50KW then to the full 100KW mobile DEW system that will protect forward-operating-bases and urban sites from incoming fire.
The US Navy LaWS Program
The Israeli Iron Beam Program
The USAF 6th Generation Fighter Air-to-Air Laser
Much like the US Navy and US Army, the US Air Force is targeting the 2030's for the 6th generation of attack fighters to be armed with a laser DEW device instead of the normal rotary cannon. Currently, a laser weapon is under development for the F35 Joint-Strike Fighter, and will serve as real-world research for the next generation of military strike fighters. This airborne laser would allow tactical options for the pilot; dazzle, point-defense, scramming of electronics, and offensive ACM laser beam fire.
The German Rheinmetall HEL
The Indian laser Programs
The Chinese Laser Programs
With Red China being the other Superpower to the United States, they are working on their own laser DEW devices. One is similar to the old Soviet anti-satellite Terra-3 laser battery, were the Chinese are developing ASAT lasers that can hit satellites as was proven with a Chinese laser strike on US satellites back in 2006. This base in the Tian Shan mountains continues to be a mystery, but with India and the US working on laser weaponry, the Chinese are also. One current laser system in the hands of the Chinese, is the ZM-87 portable laser disturber. This 15mW man-portable weapon is designed to dazzler enemy soldiers, and attack electronics with its Nd:YAG laser emitter. Developed in the 1980's, only 22 were built by the same Chinese arms company that created the Type-56 assault rifle around 2000, and production was ended due to the 1998 ban of laser blinders by the United Nations. Some were given the North Koreans, and they claim that they lit up two American Apache attack helicopters. This is the only man-portable laser DEW device ever adapted by a military organization.
Realistic Future Military Applications for Laser Weaponry
How would a future military organization realistic use DEW systems given everything that we have discussed? I think that laser DE weapons would not serve the same role as the assault rifles of today. In that role, kinetic energy weapons are just more effective and less costly in terms of energy for their intended combat role. It is likely that lasers would serve not as the primary armament, but a secondary, more defensive role. As seen in the epic ALIENS: The Colonial Marines Technical Manual, laser weaponry is mostly used in a point-defense role on armed vehicles that intercept incoming missiles, drones, and aircraft. As for a main armament, we could see lasers being used as an active denial system or even an anti-aircraft vehicle assigned to defend a base or an armored unit, like the Russian ZSU-23-4 self propelled AAA gun. Despite a particle beam or even Gauss cannon being more effective against other tanks, there could be made a case for a main battle tank being armed with a laser emitter that could, if powerful enough, could drill holes in other tanks.
Laser weaponry will be seen in the arena of space combat in both defensive ans offensive roles. These laser emitters would be protected against the perils of space, just like a camera's lens. During space engagements, as Atomic Rockets points out, whoever can get their lens cap off first, can zap first, and normally win the fight. Think of it like the torpedo tube doors on submarine, you can gauge the hostile intend and combat readiness via the status of the door (or lens in this case)...will only if they are not Minbari!
Can You Dodge a Laser Beam?
It is greatly depressing to see how common the trope of "slow moving laser beams" is in sci-fi, especially those works emerging after Star Wars and Star Trek. How the hell do you slow down light, anyways? Take it to Baskin-Robbins every day? Make it were a puffy jacket? Or how about, making the room colder? Jesus, did these people miss science class the day they talked about the speed of light? In word, no matter if you are a Jedi (and you are not), a robot, the Stig, or even a Frenchman, you cannot dodge incoming laser beams. By the time that you see it, you've already been hit. That is it. Sorry, Luke Skywalker and all the rest of the Jedi, that is the simply truth.
Can You Vaporize Someone with a Laser?
Beams that can completely blast someone into ashes has been around since War of the Worlds, and popularized by science fiction works since. So, would it be possible to set phasers to disintegrate? You can reduce a human being into a pile of ashes by subjecting the body to intense high heat, like that found in an atomic blast or industrial smelting. The amount of energy it would take to break the atomic bonds and reduce our enemies to vapor is around 2.99 gigajoules. A gigjoule is equal to one billion joules of energy, and one gigjoule is equal to 947 cubic feet of natural gas. Another way to examine the energy requirements for disintegrating someone is that the nuclear reactor at Fort Calhoun in Nebraska generates some 502 MWs. From this information, I think it safe to say that the power output required to reduce your victim to ashes or nothingness confined to a man-portable laser DEW device is not possible at this time or realistic.
Bullets or Beams?
For generations of science fiction creators, the vote between beams or bullets was extremely in favor of the directed-energy type of weaponry. This trend lasted for nearly a hundred years..really until the mid-1980's, primary due to the impact of the 1986 film ALIENS. Since around that time, sci-fi has reversed the trend of ray guns in the hands of future soldiers, putting more kinetic slug-throwers into the mix of science fiction works. This trend is even stronger since the turn of the century. While science fiction has more or made their vote, for now, about bullets vs. beams...what about that decision in the real world?
When you fire a bullet from a rifle, about 80% of the chemical energy imparted to the projectile sends it downrange. The remaining 20% is waste heat, ejected in the form of hot brass. The waste heat rejection issue is also why caseless ammo never really took off. In round numbers, a typical .223 (5.56mm) round delivers (975^2) * 0.0035 kgm/sec energy or about 3.3 kilojoules of energy to the target. It's dumping about .05 kilojoules in waste heat and hot gasses. Right now, lasers are about 7-15% efficient. For the sake of numbers, we'll call it 12.5%. That means that for every kilojoule you're delivering to the target, you'll need to get rid of 7 kilojoules of waste heat. Very roughly, cooking a 9oz New York Strip steak to medium-rare is about one kilojoule.
Against unarmored targets, lasers work best when they can cause some other chemical in the target to explode-jet fuel, propellant for a rocket, things like that. We currently lack any kind of laser than can penetrate serious vehicular or personal body armor. The first place you'll find man-portable laser DEWs will be in the sniper role, attacking from stealth. The laser should have a good range if it's using a visible light frequency, it won't have a visible light muzzle flash (expect for the person whose eye you just shot out!), and it'll have a much smaller audible signature, making the current techniques of counter-snioer echolocation infeasible. It will have a low cyclic rate of rifle, as a sniper rifle does." I then posed the question of what he would rather take into combat: AR-15, AK-47, or a laser DEW rifle? "AR-15. It won't have the range of the laser, but it will be more accurate than the AK-47. Plus, more shots per kilogram of "ammo" than either of them".
Why Are Lasers So Popular in Sci-Fi?
Using the long held human fascination with light-based weaponry, H.G. Wells would equip his alien invasion force from the red planet with blazing heat-rays wielded by tripod mecha. Given the popularity of this novel, the sci-fi community that followed would pick up on the used of beams over bullets to clearly communicate to the audience that their story and the characters were from the future. With Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, the Lensman series all using lasers, the establishment of the "rule of cool" trope was solidified by the time of the pulp science fiction works of the 1950's and 60's, paving the way for the phasers of Star Trek in the 1960's, and the blasters of Star Wars in the 1970's. Throughout my early childhood in the 1980's, laser blasters that fired color beams of death were expected in any sci-fi work, and it would take a film with as much impact as Star Trek and Star Wars to dislodge the rule-of-cool associated with frickin' lasers. That film would in 1986, and ALIENS would establish the new trope of "kinetic weapons are better" that continues today.
Will Laser Guns be Legal for Citizens in the Future?
Here in America, especially in Texas, where FWS is based, guns and the government's role with gun rights is a hotly debated topic, and while most Texans cannot name more than three amendments to the US Constitution, one of them is ALWAYS the 2nd Amendment. Will fights over civilian private ownership of laser DE weapons be an issue we'll face and protest in the future? Would future governments allow for a citizen access to lethal laser DE weaponry? Did the Founding Fathers and Mothers intend for the legal ownership of laser blasters back in December of 1791? To that question, I don't think that the FF/FM could have wrapped their brains around an AK-47, let alone an laser blaster. While one could make the argument about technologically connection to the firearms of the 18th century to modern firearms, there was nothing like the lasers back in the 18th century. I believe that If and when technology allows for compact lethal laser blaster, there WILL NOT be laser guns for sale at your local gun shop in a legal sense. Laser weapons would be untraceable by current law enforcement techniques (and even TV's CSI) unlike current slugthrowers.
While blaster seem perfectly legal in the Star War universe, as a whole, it seems that science fiction as come down on the anti-laser gun side of the debate. In the Firefly universe, only the Alliance military and law enforcement are allowed to own laser guns. In Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?, only police and the military can own a laser.The same is true in The Forever War. When William gets home from service, he attempts to buy a CO2 pocket laser from a gun shop and is turned down. In the common shopping area, he sees cops armed with lasers. This was also the same in Issac Asimov's Caves of Steel with the blasters that the NYPD carry. It is believed that in the Federation, civilians cannot own firearms or energyarms. I asked Ken Burnside of Ad Astra Games about this question: "I sincerely doubt that a laser pistol will every supplant a slugthrower. Anyone with a working knowledge of a machine shop and how to weld can make a functional (conventional) pistol. They'll always be cheaper...and a handheld laser gives up the major advantage of a laser-weapon: the accuracy. If you're not shooting a target 30 meters away, a laser's accuracy will be about the same as a slugthrower's for the first shot., the slugthrower will get the second through Nth shot out sooner, and won't be cooking the shooter's hands medium-rare on each trigger-pull."
Science Fiction and Lasers
Found in the pages of one of the firsts modern science fiction stories, H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, was the processor to the sci-fi laser gun, the Martian heat-ray mounted to the deadly tripod mecha.Wells' concept of the heat-ray was expanded upon by Garrett P. Serviss' Edison's Conquest of Mars. A sort-of-revenge-porn sequel to War of the Worlds that is completely noncanon and not authorized by H.G. Wells. In the serialized newspaper novel, Earth takes its revenge against the Martians by 1898 reverse-engineering their alien technology to construct a Terran space fleet to take the war to the Red Planet. One of the most important technologies used by the invading Terrans was a hand-held micronized version of the Martian Heat-Ray, often called in the text, "disintegrators" or "disintegration ray". This would mark, along with other important firsts in science fiction, the beginning of the connection between sci-fi and the laser gun.
Why Are Phaser Not On the List?
Easily the phaser from Star Trek is one of the beloved, recognized, and popular science fiction directed-energy weapons...so, why is not on the list of realistic laser weapon examples? While Trek started out using those laser pistols in the first two pilots, Gene Roddenberry originally intended for the hand-weapon of Trek to be a Photon Maser and to be called a "phaser", because lasers were not commonly known in the mid-1960's. It was not really until ST:TNG that the mystery of what exactly the phaser fired, and the answer was not a laser beam. Instead, the phasers, specifically, the TNG phasers use a rapid pulse nadion effect that creates a pulsed protonic charge in the artificial LiCu 521 crystal matrix in the operational portion of the phaser. The barrel assembly focuses the discharge into a coherent beam. That is straight out of the 1991 ST: TNG Technical Manual. That being said, I do not believe that the phaser, while certain a DEW device, is not a laser weapon. In the near future, FWS will be writing an entire Weapons of Sci-Fi blogpost lavishly detailing the phaser and its evolution. Because that is one of the areas in which the phaser is unique in all of sci-fi, a weapon that evolves over time, step by step...but, it isn't a laser.
Examples of "Realistic" Lasers in Science Fiction
The JDF Araska HLR-12X Heavy Laser Rifle from Akira
The Ship-board Lasers from Babylon 5
Babylon 5 mixed technologically levels across the races of the Milky Way, some were uber advanced, while others, including Earth, were still moving up the ladder. According to several sources, the main Narn warship, the G'Quan class heavy crusier had twin hard-mounted 2,500 gigawatt X-ray laser cannons designed to be the main offensive armament of the class. To put that in some perspective, the entire power output for the United States wind turbines is around 10,000 gigawatts.
The AMT Hardballer Longslide .45 ACP from The Terminator
Okay, I know it is a dick move to put a laser sight on the list, but this one is special. While laser-based aiming devices are small, cheap, and common today (I used to have one an old paintball gun), way back in 1984, they were cutting edge technology. In one of the groundbreaking 1980's sci-fi movies, The Terminator, the T-101 time traveler/assassin was armed with what now as become an iconic weapon of sci-fi, the laser sight longslide .45. Who can forget when Arnold broke into that other Sarah Conner's house, put the red dot on her forehead, and blasted away. The original prop laser aiming device was developed by Ed Reynolds of SureFire, then called Laser Products. Unlike today's solid state laser aiming devices, the Terminator laser sight was helium neon. While the laser device in the film looks self-contained, like today's, this little baby needed 10,000 volts used to turn on, and another 1,000 to keep the laser active.
The Lasers from the Firefly universe
The UNDF Veritech Valkyrie Laser Cannon from ROBOTECH: Macross
Prior to the 1st ROBOTECH War, the newly formed United Earth Gov't, began a project to solve the question if and when the alien owners of the SDF-1 showed back up, what would Earth counter the threat with. How would Earth's finest defend against alien giants with guns? In 2002, the UNDF embarked on a project to construct the Veritech, a transformable aircraft that could fight in air and on the ground. The first prototype was flown in 2006 with Roy Fokker at the controls. By the time that Breetai's fleet showed up, the Veritech Valkyrie is well into production, and becomes the main attack mecha of the 1st ROBOTECH War, and one of the most iconic Japanese mecha of all time.
Normally, the Valkyries seen on-screen used hailstorms of missiles, and the monstrous Hughes GU-11 55mm tri-barreled smoothbore rotary cannon/gun pod. Used less often was the Valkyrie head-mounted laser cannon, that was seen in various forms during Macross. In the pages of the ROBOTECH RPG, the laser is known as the Mauser RoV-20 Laser cannon that is in single, double, or quad emitters. During most of the series, the Mauser RoV-20 DEW is used to slice through metal, as in Rick rescuing Lisa from Alaska Base, and the attempted escape from Breetai's flag ship. It is explained in several sources that the lasers were used more often during air-to-air engagements while the SDF-1 was making it's way back from Pluto to Earth, due to the limited supplies of ammunition. I went back and watched several battlescenes during this time frame of Macross, and it seems that while the Valkyrie is in fighter mode, the underslung laser emitter is used. However, there is continuity errors with their on-screen usage. While the single emitter style on Ben and Max's Veritechs emit a beam, the quad-emitter on SKULL-One, is shown either as a pulse laser or beams.
The XMLR-1A/3A Experimental Laser Rifles from G.I. Joe
Sgt. Ramsay's Laser Weapon from Runaway (1984)
In those long ago time in distant past that we call the 1980's, Tom Selleck was a major star with a legendary mustache that has its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. During his run on Magnum P.I., he made a little known science fiction film directed and written by none other than Michael Crichton. The basic plot of the film Runaway is that robots are common place in the near future, and like any other machine it is either a benefit or hazard. If they are a benefit, than it is not the concern of Tom Selleck's character Sgt. Ramsay, a veteran officer the Los Angeles Police Department's Rep-Detect Blade Runner Squad...oops...I meant Runaway Squad. His thanksless job is to hunt down rouge and dangerous machines and retire them with his realistic hand-held laser weapon that is tied to a power-pack on his belt. Oddly, realistic in usage and power for a 1980's movie, sadly it is not used often in the film, but it should be noted in this forgotten film.
The Laser DEWs in the ALIENS universe
The ALIENS universe as always done things a little differently than most sci-fi works, and laser weaponry is never used on-screen. In the original 1979 movie, despite the crew of the cargo vehicle Nostromo having laser pistols, they choice to go after the xenomorph with homebrew flamethrowers! If we read between the lines, the reason why the crew didn't zap the alien was it would have made a terrible movie, and possible that the creature's acid-for-blood would have not reacted well to a high-powered laser beam. That laser pistol, seen only on-screen briefly, was rigged more to be "blaster" like rather realistic, with oddball bits and pieces attached to the DE pistol. It would never been seen again in the ALIENS universe. Some time ago, FWS did profile this weapon in much detail for a Weapons of Sci-Fi blogpost...read that if you would like to know more.
The Exelion Laser Cannons from Gunbuster
Gunbuster is anime military sci-fi/giant space robot six-part series developed by Gainax studios, the same studio that developed Royal Space Force: the Wings of Honnesamise and Neon Genesis Evangelion. I would rent these series in the mid-1990's on their U.S. Renditions release, but it has been a long damn time ago...I think I still had long hair when I watched this one! Anyway, the flagship of the Earth fleet, the Exelion and the testing site of the Gunbuster mech was fitted with rather realistic laser emitters that appears more like cameras than World War One artillery pieces. We even see crew members going on EVAs to clean the laser DEW lens...never seen that before in a sci-fi. This makes the ship-broad laser emitters of Gunbuster unique.
The Laser Weapons from The Forever War
In the pages of one of the greatest military sci-fi novels of all time: Joe Haldman's The Forever War. The UN mission to confront the hostile aliens is manned with genius-level soldiers that clothed in powered armor fighting suits and armed with CO2 "finger lasers". These effect of these laser DE weapons is shown in all of it gory details on the local wildlife on Epsilon Aurigae and the Taurans. When the expeditionary forces arrives back on a much changed Earth decades later, William Mandella attempted to buy a "pocket CO2 laser" for personal protection, but it refused due to lasers being legal for cops and military. Instead, he buys a shotgun-revolver loaded with flechettes. In the 1988 Dutch-French-American graphic novel series done by Marvano and published by Dupuis in Europe and NBM in American, the UNEF is armed with lasers, but take the form of military laser assault rifles, similar in design to the Star Wars Rebel Alliance A280 and A295 blaster rifles.
The Misriah Armory M6 Grindell/Galilean Nonlinear Rifle from the HALO Universe