China Claims This 'Laser AK-47' Can Set You On Fire. That's Probably Bullsh*t

Bullet Points
A laser weapon produced by the Chengdu Hengan Police Equipment Manufacturing Company
Courtesy of South China Morning Post

China's ZKZM-500 "non-lethal" laser assault rifle, a handheld directed energy weapon billed as a "laser AK-47" that can purportedly ignite the clothing of targets nearly a half-mile away, is ready to be mass produced for state security forces, according to a highly dubious report in the South China Morning Post.


Before I get into why, exactly, this report is highly dubious, here are some deets.

  • Researchers responsible for developing the prototype laser weapon at the Chinese Academy of Sciences claim it can  “burn through clothes in a split second," leading to “instant carbonization [sic]" of organic tissue.
  • "If the fabric is flammable, the whole person will be set on fire," researchers told the South China Morning Post. "The pain will be beyond endurance."

The casing of the ZKZM-500 laser assault rifleCourtesy of South China Morning Post

  • The ZKZM-500 has a rechargeable 1000-shot lithium battery and weight profile similar to the AK-47.
  • The South China Morning Post reports that the futuristic rifle is likely destined for state police counterterrorism squads.
  • But researchers also see potential applications for covert military operations like disabling enemy infrastructure or fuel resources: "Nobody will know where the attack came from ...It will look like an accident."

Look, I'm extremely skeptical of most breathless reports regarding futuristic military tech (with the occasional exception), so there are a few things that are immediately suspect here.

  • 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.

Not everyone is so skeptical, however. Here's some more credulous coverage if that's what you're in the mood for:

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