After decades of promise and failure, a new plasma weapon emerges.
Nearly 30 years ago, inside a classified facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory, researchers test-fired a new type of laser. The target: a piece of wet chamois leather meant to simulate human skin. The intense laser pulse lasted just a few microseconds, but created a brilliant flash and a loud bang, as though the leather had been hit by an explosive projectile.
Those early 1990s tests were part of the Pentagon’s plan to develop a more effective, nonlethal way to engage a target—an area where the services have experienced chronic shortcomings. In 2008, for example, the U.S. Army urgently acquired FN303 paintball guns to help maintain order in detainee camps, though such projectiles were too weak against enraged subjects. And, tragically, “nonlethal” weapons can kill innocent people, which happened in Boston in 2004.
Now, after a quarter-century of research and enough failed exotic weapons to fill a museum, the Pentagon has built upon its myriad failures to create SCUPLS, or Scalable Compact Ultra-Short Pulse Laser System. It’s a nonlethal weapon more akin to Star Trek’s fictional phaser, with the ability to warn, dazzle, deafen, stun, or burn, depending on how you tweak the settings. It’s a promising sign for the Armed Forces, which want an effective weapon that won’t kill—and a cause for concern for others who fear it becoming another instrument for torture.