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Trading  | July 2, 2018

China’s newly announced ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle 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 a Chinese weapons expert cited in a bombshell South China Morning Post report.

News of this latest handheld directed energy weapon, described as a “laser AK-47” is now going viral as its claimed capabilities are jaw-dropping, foremost being that it can ignite materials from a half-mile away, and that it can cause the “instant carbonisation” of human skin and tissues.

Image source: South China Morning Post (SCMP)

But some in the US military and veteran community are already calling bullshit as the report appears but the latest in the tit-for-tat propaganda war with the Pentagon over advanced military tech. 

Here are further ZKZM-500’s capabilities, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP) exclusive:

  • The portable laser weapon’s energy beam cannot be seen by the naked eye, and the device makes no sound, and if concentrated for multiple bursts can set fire to a target from nearly a kilometer away.
  • It’s ready for mass production based on the prototype built by Xian-based ZKZM Laser, and though officially billed as “non-lethal” (merely indicating its lethal applications are less immediate than regular firearms) will be strictly controlled by the Chinese government, with use by anti-terror squads in the Chinese Armed Police.
  • Powered by a rechargeable lithium battery pack akin to those found in smartphones and can fire more than 1,000 bursts with each lasting about two seconds.
  • The laser has been tuned to an invisible frequency, thus “nobody will know where the attack came from. It will look like an accident,” a researcher cited in the report said. 
  • The report notes that “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.”
  • 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, who would have the capability to “carbonize” a living person.
  • The laser can be easily mounted on cars, boats and planes, or can be a handheld tactical weapon, as it weights only three kilos (6.6lb), about the same as an AK-47.
  • It marks a huge advance over the most recent laser “machine gun” announced by Chengdu Hengan Police Equipment Manufacturing company only last month, which can purportedly fire up to 500 meters, compared to the new weapon’s 800 meters and greater power.

What could go wrong? The SCMP report assures that “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.”

There are currently no international or UN-enforced bans on such advanced technology, only the UN Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, signed in 1980, which focuses on older technology that could cause loss of eyesight if used against aircraft or ships. 

Official handout showing the exterior of the ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle, via the South China Morning Post

The report further envisions the ZKZM-500’s use in both covert operations and police hostage situations: “it could be used to fire through windows at targets and temporarily disable the kidnappers while other units move in to rescue their captives,” and further: “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.”

However, the military website Task & Purpose says the dubious SCMP report is “probably bullshit” while identifying a number of the claims as highly suspect based on what’s currently known about laser technology. 

Task & Purpose lists the following problematic examples

  • Range and weight are described, but the actual power system is not. Sure, anyone can claim OPSEC here, but it is hard to believe that the Chinese engineered a powerful-enough directed energy beam that can torch enemies from a half-mile away without being refracted by environmental factors like dust or fog — all with “a rechargeable lithium battery pack similar to those found in smartphones.”
  • The author of the story refers to this boxy piece of shit as a “15mm caliber weapon.” I didn’t realize laser weapons had caliber? Oh wait, they don’t.
  • The South China Morning Post isn’t state-run media (it’s owned by the Alibaba Group), but the story does come amid reported progress in the Chinese military’s electromagnetic railgun program. This one-two punch of groundbreaking directed energy weapon news — an area where the United States has lagged in recent years — suggest the ZKZM-500 update could just be another piece of science fiction propaganda designed to rankle the Pentagon.
  • Last point: Heat-based weapons are usually bullshit. Consider, for example, the time T&P Pentagon correspondent Jeff Schogol stood directly in front of a non-lethal Active Denial System meant for crowd control and didn’t even break a sweat. Sure, lasers have come a long way since 2007, but this far? I doubt it.

And given all that’s claimed about the weapon, the price tag floated in the report seems quite economical given that enemies could be “carbonized” from afar without any hint of where the shot came from. The SCMP report lists “large-scale production at a cost of 100,000 yuan (US$15,000) a unit” — which again is not bad for such a sci-fi weapon that makes its possessor pretty much all-powerful in the face of conventional weapons. 

Public disclosure of the weapon first appeared via a technical document published on a government-run website, the Public Service Platform for National Civil-Military Integration, which listed possible applications as countering “illegal protests” by setting fire to banners from a long distance or that 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”.

While we are also skeptical concerning some of the claims surrounding this latest Chinese laser gun, and await proof of its capabilities through an official field test video, it doesn’t actually seem so far outside the realm of possibility considering what can now be built in a garage.

In 2015 covered the story of an American teenager who built a “laser shotgun” in his garage and demonstrated it could light things on fire from meters away.  If this was accomplished three years ago by industrious American kids in garages, imagine what the Chinese military-industrial complex can do. So there is probably reason to be concerned.

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