Stephen Chen caused a minor media sensation on July 1 when he wrote about a new Chinese laser rifle for the South China Morning Post.
Since the 1990s, China has developed a slew of fantastical looking laser small arms. Benefiting from over $300 million in funding from Beijing in 2015, Chinese companies recently developed a new sleeker generation of weapons, most of which are designed to temporarily blind human beings and damage sensitive electronic sensors.
However, according to Chen, the ZKZM-500, developed by the Xi’an Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics is far more powerful than earlier weapons and supposedly can inflict painful burns on exposed skin (instant carbonization) which leaves “permanent” and “horrid” scars.
This laser “assault rifle”—which resembles a bulky sci-fi blaster with a giant camera lens—reportedly weighs 6.6 pounds, fires a fifteen millimeter diameter laser, and has a lithium-ion battery capable of firing one thousand two-second shots. Furthermore, the laser supposedly has a range of eight hundred meters, which is on the upper end for man-portable laser weapons.
Chen further quotes an expert claiming it can “burn through a gas tank and ignite the fuel storage facility of a military airport.” So imagine a less deadly version of Star Wars blasters that inflict nasty burns—but without the cool special effects, as lasers produce no sound and military types are usually invisible. The ZKZM-500 is reportedly ready for mass production, with sales exclusively to police or military units at the equivalent of $15,000 per unit.
Notably, however, there are no details as to its power output. Initially, there were also no demonstration videos of it being fired. However, on July 4 the manufactures released to SCMP a video of laser test in May that showed a ZKZM-500 apparently burning through cardboard on a rooftop in Shaanxi from dozens of meters away. A tire, a piece of bacon, and a t-shirt are also set on fire—presumably from a similar distance, thought that cannot be verified from the footage. It is also unclear how long it took to achieve these effects.
In this second article, the manufacturer claims that ZKZM-500 does not require range adjustments and focusing like other laser weapons do, and that the rifle will be developed into a laser cannon capable of destroying drones from kilometers away.
Is the ZKZM-500 Really That Powerful?
Most analysts have expressed skepticism about the claimed performance parameters. Quite simply, a laser powerful enough to cause significant heat damage to most nonoptical materials requires a great deal of electricity, and thus very heavy batteries—on the order of dozens or hundreds of pounds. For this reason, various anti-drone and anti-missile laser weapons being developed by the United States and China are mounted on vehicles or fixed sites.
Many earlier Chinese blinding lasers guns weigh up to twice as much as the ZKZM-500 while claiming to have lesser destructive impact and range. Obviously, the Xi’an institute may have made a technical breakthrough, but a thousand-meter range, gas-tank piercing ZKZM-500 that weighs only seven pounds seems to strain credibility compared to earlier lasers.
Are there any ways to reconcile the claims, and what appears to occur in the test video, with what seems technically feasible?
That the rooftop laser demonstration appears to have occurred at below one hundred meters range may support the notion that the ZKZM-500 is capable of inducing painful burns or heat combustion of certain materials at short distances—but it would likely produce more limited effects up to the claimed one thousand meter range. This is because lasers lose coherence (or “bloom”) over distance due to intervening atmospheric particles, which is why weather conditions also have a major impact on laser performance.
As for the battery-weight issue, in the July 4 video there is no clear footage of how the gun is being held or mounted. This invites speculation that the six-pound gun could be connected to a heavier separate powerpack or an outlet to achieve the necessary output for the carbonization-level attacks. Obviously, this would limit the rifle’s use in mobile operations.
Critics have also brought up safety concerns, including the likelihood of intense heat buildup from such an ostensibly powerful laser, and the potential effects of a catastrophic failure on the user.
Would Such a Weapon Be Legal?
Protocol IV of the Geneva Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons states that laser weapons cannot be used with the intention of permanently blinding human beings. This protocol came into effect in 1998 and has over a hundred signatories including China and the United States. Because nearly any laser that can have deadly anti-personnel effects could also cause permanent blindness, Protocol IV is generally interpreted around the world as a ban on designing and employing lasers intended specifically as lethal anti-personnel weapons, though the SCMP article emphasizes that they are not explicitly banned.