How Laser Weapons Work

Could this young man use his laser gun to stun an opponent? See more laser pictures.
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You may have seen them in "Star Wars," "Star Trek," and other science fiction films and shows. The X-wing fighters, the Death Star, the Millennium Falcon and the Enterprise used laser weapons in great fictional battles to conquer and/or defend the universe. And starships aren't the only ones packing laser heat. Han Solo and others carried the blaster in "Star Wars." And Captain Kirk and other Starfleet personnel used phasers in "Star Trek." All of these weapons used directed energy, in the form of a laser beam, to disable or kill an opponent.

But what are the advantages of using a laser as a weapon? Is it even possible? Could you use such a weapon to stun an opponent? These questions are being addressed by the Air Force Research Laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate. This program is developing high-energy lasers, microwave technologies and other futuristic weapons systems, such as the Airborne Laser and the PHaSR.

Lasers and other directed-energy weapons have many advantages over conventional projectile weapons like bullets and missiles:

  • The weapons' light outputs can travel at the velocity of light.
  • The weapons can be precisely targeted.
  • Their energy output can be controlled -- high-power for lethal outcomes or cutting and low-power for nonlethal outcomes.  

The Air Force has already developed three weapons systems that are being tested and, in some cases, used. These systems include the Airborne Laser (Advanced Tactical Laser), the PHaSR and the Active Denial System. Read on to find out how lasers and these weapons systems work.