Whatever Happened to Laser Guns?

Louis aimed the implement high.

The figurine which was his target jutted from the tower’s roof. It was like a modernized, surrealistic gargoyle. Louis’ thumb moved, and the gargoyle glowed yellow white. His index finger shifted, and the beam narrowed to a pencil of green light. The gargoyle sprouted a white-hot navel.

Larry Niven, Ringworld

Laser weapons used to be the future. They later became old-fashioned. But might these favored objects of science fiction soon feature in modern military arsenals?

The confirmation that lasers had stopped being cool arrived in 2003. Standing in the CIC of Battlestar Galactica, Colonel Tigh advised Commander Adama about the stocks held at Ragnar Anchorage.

Well, the book says that there are fifty pallets of Class-D warheads in storage there. They should also have all the missiles and small-arms munitions we’ll need.

Tigh and Adama are caught in the middle of a surprise Cylon attack, and their first priority is to find some ammo! The old Battlestar Galactica would have never faced that difficulty.

BSG weapons before and after
BSG weapons before and after

Back in the real world, laser weapons have always struggled to overcome one particular challenge. It takes tremendous amounts of energy to generate a beam that could kill someone or destroy a target. US President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative – commonly known as ‘Star Wars’ – experimented with X-ray lasers powered by nuclear explosions. Though the lasers could only be used once, because they would be destroyed by the explosion which powered them, the idea was to provide a blanket screen that would shoot down scores of Soviet ballistic missiles. Physicist and laser advocate Dr. Edward Teller argued that:

…a single X-ray laser module the size of an executive desk which applied this technology could potentially shoot down the entire Soviet land-based missile force, if it were to be launched into the module’s field of view.

However, the viability of the program hinged on firing the lasers in space, where the atmosphere would not absorb their energy. A review committee chaired by a former NASA boss concluded the X-ray lasers would easily be evaded: the Soviets just needed to flatten the arc of their ballistic missiles so they never left the atmosphere.

Whilst the Americans were designing lasers for outer space, the Soviets and the Brits were aiming lower…

In 1982, Astrofizika — a so-called “scientific production association” — built the first full-size prototype of an energy weapon for a ground vehicle. Then Uraltransmash — a weapons manufacturer — strapped the laser to a tracked chassis.

The first laser tank was born.

One of the surviving 1K17 laser tanks. Photograph by Vitaly V. Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons.
One of the Soviet 1K17 laser tanks. Photograph by Vitaly V. Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons.

The Soviets did not expect these lasers to destroy the enemy. Their much more realistic goal was to burn out optical equipment at extremely long range, making it impossible for enemies to target their weapons with precision.

Meanwhile, the British Navy were the first to use lasers as a weapon during an actual war. Though classified at the time, it was later revealed that some British Type 22 Frigates deployed in the Falklands War were equipped with lasers to enhance their air defenses. The lasers were pointed at enemy Argentinian pilots during their bombing runs, preventing them from successfully aiming at the ships.

The use of laser weapons designed to blind enemies has since been banned by treaty. And the Soviets only ever built a few prototype laser tanks. Dust, smoke or water vapor would negatively impact the effectiveness of the lasers. Their cost was prohibitive, thanks to the giant artificial rubies that formed their core, so the project was abandoned following the dissolution of that country. However, the Chinese have continued to develop the techniques pioneered by the Soviets. Chinese Type 99 tanks carry laser dazzlers designed to damage the optical targeting equipment of enemies.

Lasers can also be used to discourage behavior that poses risks but may have no hostile intent. Such weapons are legal so long as they only cause temporary blindness. Instead of shooting at misbehaving vehicles when they approach a checkpoint, it is better to use lasers to first alarm, then dazzle oncoming drivers. The Glare Mout is one such laser device; it is designed to be attached to US rifles. Here is a video of the Glare Mout being used in Afghanistan.

And the US military is showing lots of renewed interest in the possibility of lasers that actually destroy things. The benefits of a laser as a defensive weapon are pretty straightforward. If you have to shoot at droves of missiles, swarms of fast moving boats, or any other surge of attackers who are trying to overwhelm your defenses, then the last thing you want is to be in a situation like Colonel Tigh, asking where you can restock your depleted reserves of ammo. Here is a video of the USS Ponce testing a laser system designed to neutralize attackers.

Ship-based defensive laser systems make practical sense because ships are large enough to carry viable power sources, and range is less important when the goal is to defend against attackers.

It will be a while before we see destructive lasers routinely fitted to vehicles as small as a Colonial Viper, but the US Air Force continues to investigate the potential of lasers in air combat. They mounted lasers on a Boeing 747, and experimented with the possibility of using them to shoot down missiles. That project was terminated in 2011 after running up a cost of $5 billion, because the lasers were nowhere near powerful enough to execute their stated mission. Now the US Air Force are looking at installing lasers on their heavy-lifting turboprop AC-130 gunships. This is how Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, Chief of US Air Force Special Operations Command, envisaged their possible use:

If we just want to take a comms node out in the middle of the night — nobody hears anything, nobody sees anything. It just quits working because we burn a hole in it.

The ongoing challenge will be to improve the size, weight, power and accuracy of these weapons, so they might be usefully installed on drones and trucks, instead of ships and cargo planes. It will be a long while before anyone melts a statue with a Larry Niven penlight-laser. Like Buck Rogers, we may need to wait until the 25th Century before concealed ray guns become commonplace. But if you thought laser weapons were old-fashioned science fiction, be prepared for science fact to turn that fashion full circle.