Body of the ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle.
Photo: Press handout from ZKZM Laser

As the U.S. prepares for war in space, China’s bringing the space war home. Its ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle is reportedly capable of hitting a target from a kilometer away, igniting flammable objects, and burning through human skin. And it’s ready for production, the researchers behind the project claim.

A weapon that fires a destructive laser beam has been a dream of military researchers for decades. The US military has recently had some luck with huge laser-firing cannons that are intended to be mounted on ships or trucks and can take down a drone by burning through its body. But effective laser rifles for use by individual soldiers have been stuck in the land of fantasy. The South China Morning Post, however, spoke with researchers at the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics (at the Chinese Academy of Sciences) who say they have developed a powerful laser rifle that will soon be in the hands of Chinese police who focus on anti-terrorism. From the report:

The 15mm calibre weapon weighs three kilos (6.6lb), about the same as an AK-47, and has a range of 800 metres, or half a mile, and could be mounted on cars, boats and planes...

In the event of a hostage situation it could be used to fire through windows at targets and temporarily disable the kidnappers while other units move in to rescue their captives.

It could also be used in covert military operations. The beam is powerful enough to burn through a gas tank and ignite the fuel storage facility in a military airport.

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The gun is entirely silent and its beam is invisible, the vivid report alleges. A target wouldn’t know what’s happening, apparently, until a hole burned through their clothes in the blink of an eye and their skin and tissue experienced “instant carbonization” that, in the best case scenario, would leave a permanent scar. One researcher told the Morning Post that “the pain will be beyond endurance.” If the unfortunate target happened to be wearing flammable clothing, they could go up in flames, according to the report.

At $15,000-a-piece, the ZKZM-500 sounds relatively inexpensive, especially if you consider that it doesn’t require traditional ammunition. The weapon’s lithium battery can apparently handle over 1,000 laser bursts that last around two seconds each. But even though that cost would be feasible for some civilians, the technology is expected to be restricted for military and police use only.

Even that level of use could face pushback from other countries. As the Morning Post points out, the United Nations Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons came into force in 1998 and has been signed by 108 nations around the world. It bans the use of weapons that are specifically designed to cause permanent blindness, but as part of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, it lacks any real mechanisms for enforcement.

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While hostage and anti-terrorist situations are being discussed as the most likely scenarios for these weapons to be used in the short-term, a promotional document uploaded to a Chinese government website and seen by the Morning Post also highlights its potential for use against “illegal protests.” China’s grip on the internet has tightened over recent years, making it more difficult to organize dissent. Going from firewalls to setting people on fire would be quite the escalation in the country’s high-tech war on its own people.

[South China Morning Post]