The U.S. Military's Laser Weapons Are Set To Stun, Not Kill... At Least For Now
Central to the vast majority of science-fiction films of the last 50 years is the weaponry that is either used to subjugate or defend humanity – or a sympathetic alien species – and how that technology is utilized or overcome.
With few exceptions, the iconic science-fiction weapon is the laser gun. From Han Solo's Mauser-modeled blaster in the Star Wars universe to the multi-phase phasers issued to Starfleet officers (and presumably enlisted personnel) in Star Trek, the laser gun has long embodied the pinnacle of futuristic martial technology in science fiction, and for good reason. The technology is not only scalable – ranging from pistols to photon torpedoes to Death Star-sized planet destroyers – but it is also presumably energy-efficient, requiring no ammunition and little maintenance (at least on-screen), and reliable: you never see a Stormtrooper hunkered down in a corner desperately trying to clear a double feed or other malfunction. Less obvious, however, is the fact that these weapons are always depicted as generally humane ways of dispatching enemies: those who fall under laser fire either simply drop dead or are vaporized in an imagining of idealized combat that sanitizes the violence. Perhaps that's a good thing, perhaps not.
Science-fiction aside, laser weapons do exist and they're not just used against other forms of technology.
The major difference between science-fiction laser guns and the ones currently in use or development by the U.S. military is that the latter are strictly non-lethal: appearances aside they are intended to mitigate – or least delay – lethal violence. As such, they represent a place on the use of force spectrum that, until now, has been limited to fairly primitive technologies: beanbag guns, pepper spray or other incapacitating chemical agents, and impact weapons, among others. The DoD's Non-Lethal Weapons Program (NLW) describes the overarching philosophy on their website:
"A number of non-lethal weapons are currently being fielded to give our men and women in uniform alternatives between 'shouting and shooting,' while reducing the risk of fatalities and permanent injury to non-combatants. These devices have been and continue to be extremely valuable to troops involved in current operations. Non-lethal capabilities are available for use in a variety of conflict scenarios, from humanitarian and peace operations to combat operations."
So how is a laser gun non-lethal?
In the case of the Green Laser Interdiction System, it's because it is designed for "ocular impairment," which is Department of Defense-ese for "temporary blinding."
The Department of Defense describes the weapon as a "rifle-mounted/hand-held laser that allows interdiction of potential hostile actions through non-lethal effects and is interchangeable between host weapon platforms" that can also be mounted on a crew-served weapon. The "dazzling" effect was demonstrated to joint service military personnel this past January. Richard Bartis, a liaison between the NLW and the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) noted the weapon's scalability in terms of interdiction when it comes to hostile forces approaching in vehicles. "The system covers a vehicle's entire windshield, limiting the operator's ability to drive forward," Bartis said at the demonstration.
According to a DoD press release, the "dazzling laser demonstration gave participants an opportunity to see, from inside a car, how the eye-safe beam creates a prominent glare." The video below shows similar testing/demonstrations carried out by U.S. Marines.
Regardless of whether or not the technology behind these weapons is ever utilized to create the equivalent of a blaster or phaser, non-lethal applications represent another tool in the warfighter's toolbox: they provide tactical options for situations that may not demand lethal force or that may not allow for the use of traditional weapons, as in scenarios where civilians or fellow warfighters could be injured or killed. Given that war is very often "the best worst option," anything that allows greater flexibility for the men and women who fight can only be a good thing.