Laser Blasters: Not Just Science Fiction? Maybe. Someday.

Joe Grine, Nick Leghorn and myself are amped up to cover the Joint Small Arms Conference of the National Defense Industry Association in May. I’m a complete noob when it comes to this kind of military-grade hardware, and I’m having trouble sleeping just thinking about shooting anything belt-fed, crew-served or rocket-propelled. Laser guns weren’t on the menu, or so I thought…

Then I noticed an intriguing item on the May 15th ‘Directed Energy Weapons’ panel agenda: “Miniature High-Power Microwave Systems Based on Explosive-Driven High-Voltage Ferroelectric Generators.” I know Obi-Wan hates them, but I’ve been all over laser blasters since the summer of 1977, so I dug a little deeper.

Directed-energy weapons are a class of weapons that includes lasers, particle-beam weapons and focused microwave emitters. Their massive power requirements have stymied efforts to miniaturize them for battlefield use, since traditional chemical batteries simply don’t have the megaampere-hours needed to light them up. The smallest mobile military laser that came anywhere near deployment filled the entire cargo area of a converted 747.

Batteries don’t work, so engineers are now looking hard at other power sources with the potential to get Han Solo’s laser blaster back in the fight. Strangely, many of them use old-fashioned chemical explosives as their primary energy source.

Shaped strangely like a shotgun shell, the explosive-driven ferroelectric generator uses a tiny charge of C4 to crush (and then basically vaporize) a small volume of magnetized iron-laden ceramic powder. As the expansion front from the C4 crushes the powder, the magnetized powder depolarizes and produces a powerful but brief jolt of electric current.

Right now, these single-shot generators are powerful enough to generate short-range EMP effects and directed microwave bursts to fry enemy electronic systems. With further development, though, they might provide enough portable energy to power a weaponized pulsed laser.

That’s right, a laser gun that goes bang and uses explosive-charged cartridges. Whether such weapons will ever rule the battlefield will depend on whether they can outperform traditional kinetic-energy penetrator weapons like firearms, and whether they can do it at realistic cost.

Those trials are a long way off, and in the meantime I’m pretty sure the present-day EMP and microwave bombs won’t be part of the Joint Base Lewis-McChord live fire demonstration (dude, what did you do to my iPod?). I plan on attending the discussion anyway; it’s only 20 minutes long, so even if I don’t understand the techno-speak I still won’t have to suffer too long in ignorance.

A real laser blaster might not be a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age, but Han can’t shoot first without one. Someday, at least.