Handheld weapons that could set fire to targets from long distances are no longer confined to science fiction but a fact of life, according to researchers.
China has developed a new portable laser weapon that can zap a target from nearly a kilometre away, according to researchers involved in the project.
The ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle is classified as being “non-lethal” but produces an energy beam that cannot be seen by the naked eye but can pass through windows and cause the “instant carbonisation” of human skin and tissues.
Ten years ago its capabilities would have been the preserve of sci-fi films, but one laser weapons scientist said the new device is able to “burn through clothes in a split second … If the fabric is flammable, the whole person will be set on fire”.
“The pain will be beyond endurance,” according to the researcher who had took part in the development and field testing of a prototype at the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shaanxi province.
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.
It is now ready for mass production and the first units are likely to be given to anti-terrorism squads in the Chinese Armed Police.
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.
Because the laser has been tuned to an invisible frequency, and it produces absolutely no sound, “nobody will know where the attack came from. It will look like an accident,” another researcher said. The scientists requested not to be named due to the sensitivity of the project.
The rifles will be powered by a rechargeable lithium battery pack similar to those found in smartphones. It can fire more than 1,000 “shots”, each lasting no more than two seconds.
The prototype was built by ZKZM Laser, a technology company owned by the institute in Xian. A company representative confirmed that the firm is now seeking a partner that has a weapons production licence or a partner in the security or defense industry to start large-scale production at a cost of 100,000 yuan (US$15,000) a unit.
Given their potential for misuse, the design and production of the devices will be tightly monitored and the only customers will be China’s military and police.
A technical document containing basic information about the weapon was released last month on the Public Service Platform for National Civil-Military Integration, a website run by the central government to facilitate collaboration between the military and commercial sectors.
Chengdu Hengan Police Equipment Manufacturing company, a major hardware supplier for Chinese law enforcement agencies, also released a laser “machine gun” last month.
The weapon has a range of 500 metres and it can fire several hundred shots per charge, according to the company’s product brochure.
Only a decade ago, such powerful laser weapons were something out of science fiction. In 2009 a US attempt to design a handheld laser gun resulted in something that “only works on nudists” because its beam was too weak to even penetrate a shirt.
But in 2015 Beijing upped the ante with a two billion-yuan fund to develop compact, powerful laser devices – an unprecedented budget for the field and one that triggered concerns in the US and other Western nations.
In recent years US forces operating in strategically important areas such as the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea have complained that they have been subjected to an increasing number of laser attacks from Chinese military bases or vessels that look like fishing boats.
Last month, the US government lodged a formal complaint that a “weapons-grade” laser device fired from a Chinese naval base in Djibouti had left two military pilots with minor eye injuries.
Wang Zhimin, associate researcher at the Research Centre for Laser Physics and Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said technological improvements in recent years meant scientists were able to develop smaller and more powerful devices in the same way that mobile phone manufacturers had done.
“This is no longer science fiction. They are already a fact of life,” he said.
In the early days, due to technical limits, it was necessary to fire several beams and get them to converge on a target to cause any damage. They also needed a precise distance reading to have any chance of working.
Furthermore, the only devices available were slow, bulky and heavy, had a short range and required enormous supplies of power.
But the latest devices fire a single beam and can cause as much damage as large, truck-mounted laser cannons would have done.
But these developments increase the risk that the weapons could more easily fall into the hands of criminals and terrorists who could exploit their destructive capacity, for instance by conducting arson attacks without being detected.
Wang, who was not involved in the Xian project, warned that allowing these weapons to proliferate could be a threat to all countries.
There are no specific international protocols in place to regulate the development or use of this type of laser weapon.
The United Nations Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, initiated in 1980 and signed by over 100 nations, concentrates on earlier generation weapons and prohibits the use of those that could cause permanent loss of eyesight.
The document on Chinese government website classifies the ZKZM-500 as a “non-lethal weapon”,
Meaning they are deemed less likely to kill a living target than something explicitly designed to do so, such as a gun.
The lasers cannot kill a target with a single shot, but if fired at a person for long enough the weapons would start to burn a hole in their body, cutting through them like a surgical knife.
For instance it says law enforcement could counter “illegal protests” by setting fire to banners from a long distance.
It also says protest leaders could be targeted by setting fire to their clothing or hair which, the document says, would mean they lose “the rhythms of their speech and powers of persuasion”.