Chinese scientists have developed the world’s first destructive, man-portable laser weapon. However, there is more to the story of this cool looking, but “less than lethal” directed energy device.
The laser rifle is the ZKZM-500, developed by Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics in Xian, Shaanxi. It’s manufactured by the Institute’s subsidiary, ZKZM Laser. Weighing at 6 pounds (about the weight of a typical assault rifle), the ZKZM-500 has a range of 2,600 feet. The ZKZM-500 uses a lithium battery with enough power for 1000 two second shots (keep in mind, those 1000 shots may not be at full power). According to Institute designers, its laser is powerful enough to instantly scar human skin and tissue. It can also ignite clothing, knock a small drone out of the sky, or even ignite a fuel tank. That would place its power output around 100-500 watts (most surgical lasers top out at 100 watts).
Official government state that the ZKZM-500 would be primarily used for crowd control by the People’s Armed Police. Akin to the US Active Denial System, the laser power could be adjusted to simply cause protesters intense pain instead of immolating them.However, a Beijing police officer told the South China Morning Post that destructive lasers were sadistic and counterproductive for crowd control.
Chinese special forces might be more receptive customers of the ZKZM-500. Its laser beam is invisible and silent, making it a good choice to stealthily detonate enemy explosives and bombs. It can also take aim at fuel tanks on targets like enemy missile launchers, fuel depots, and taxiing aircraft. Its stealth characteristics also mean that the ZKZM-500 can quikcly disable enemy personnel, like hostage takers, or destroy CCTV cameras and other perimeter sensors. However, the ZKZM-500 isn’t powerful enough to replace sniper rifles for long distance shots.
The ZKZM-500 has plenty of Chinese predecessors in directed energy weapons. Chinese police and soldiers have long been equipped with ‘dazzler’ laser rifles. These include PY132A, WGJ-2002 and BBQ-905, which are designed to target the optical imagers and sensors on enemy vehicles, aircraft and drones (sinceChina’s signed the United Nations Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which bans the use of laser weapons that cause permanent damage to human eyes). Improvements in power storage and laser efficiency, such as newer lithium batteries and solid-state lasers, are what have made the ZKZM-500 more powerful than its predecessors.
Other larger destructive Chinese lasers include the Low Altitude Guard II and Silent Hunter, the later which can burn through vehicle light armor from a kilometer away.
We are not in the world of Star Wars yet, but China’s work show that some of the imagined world of laser weapons may not stay science fiction forever.
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Peter Warren Singer is a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He has been named by Defense News as one of the 100 most influential people in defense issues. He was also dubbed an official “Mad Scientist” for the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. Jeffrey is a national security professional in the greater D.C. area. They both are Associates with the U.S. Air Force University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute.