Lasers are cool. Face it. Look deep in your heart; accept it as truth. Ever since you and I and everybody else saw Star Wars, we’ve wanted lasers. Not for dinky science experiments or for pointless, boring crap like ‘communication’ or ‘entertainment’. We’ve wanted laser to incinerate our enemies, dammit! We want ray guns!
Well, we’re getting closer. As of 2009, lasers hit battlefield strength. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t mean raygun-toting stormtroopers anytime soon. That laser they’re talking about has to ride around on a truck. It eats HUGE amounts of energy, it costs as much as a fighter jet (hell, probably more), and if you use it wrong, it probably melts/blows up/lights on fire or all three at once.
And all this just to shoot at mortars.
The inherent problem with lasers/energy weapons is that they don’t really do anything substantially better than we can do already with conventional guns. War is the most utilitarian of all laboratories–a guy with a shovel can kill just like a guy with a $10,000 weapon can kill. If you’re spending that money, it better damned well let you kill $10,000 better than the guy with the shovel/hunk of rock/pointy stick he found on the side of the road. For a laser to be useful, it needs to fill a niche that other military tools don’t or can’t.
For that reason, I find it rather doubtful we’ll be seeing man-portable laser rifles anytime soon. Regular rifles shoot just fine, actually, and until some aspect of military engagements change to force the usage of lasers, they won’t be used. If the AK-47 ain’t broke, don’t fix it (though, this just in, they are). This is the same as the trouble with giant robots, which I’ve discussed before.
So, what would a laser be better at than a gun? Well, a laser causes damage by generating heat, though it can take a
second or two for it to transmit that heat. Kinetic Energy weapons deliver all their force at once, pretty much, while a laser builds up. The good news is that the laser could likely keep the focus on a very precise spot for a comparatively long time. How is this useful? Well, it would be useful in the same way that the military seems to think–anti-materiel, or, in English, for blowing up/destroying stuff rather than people. Think about it: you can, with virtually unerring accuracy, place all the power of your weapon on a single rivet of the enemy tank/ship/plane/gun. If you’ve got troops trained well enough, they could make junkyards of enemy fleets or convoys in a matter of seconds–pretty cool–and with relatively little loss of life (yay, prisoners!). It’s got a use, certainly.
As for ray guns, they might show up, but they aren’t going to be lasers. Perhaps some kind of plasma thrower or radiation sprayer, maybe (but, again, they need to beat out good old-fashioned firearms to make it worth it). That, however, isn’t the direction the military is currently heading for their small arms–don’t think lasers so much as high-tech grenade launchers and ultra- lightweight machine guns.
So, yeah, no lasers for blasting rebel scum. Sorry guys. On the bright side, though, don’t be so disappointed–the blasters of Star Wars were really just plasma weapons, anyway. Those we might still build…someday. If we were really, really mad.