Ray Guns on the Battlefield?

It’s called the Pain Ray. And here’s what happens when you’re zapped with it:
“…there’s no warning — no flash, no smell, no sound, no round,” wrote Wired blogger Spencer Ackerman in March 2012, describing what it was like to face the military’s laser on a marine base in Quantico, Virginia.  “Suddenly my chest and neck feel like they’ve been exposed to a blast furnace, with a sting thrown in for good measure…”

Makes for an entertaining – if not cringe-inducing - story. But what role will lasers and ray guns (ahem, directed-energy tools) play in wars of the future? And what could the deployment of these directed-energy arms mean for us civilians – and public policy? That was the subject of a Future Tense happy hour conversation on Tuesday between Wired’s Ackerman and Arizona State University’s Werner Dahm, the former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force. (Future Tense is a collaboration among Slate magazine, Arizona State University and the New America Foundation). Future Tense Editor Torie Bosch jotted down highlights from the event on Slate’s Future Tense blog, debunking commonly held perceptions about the technology, and answering some of the complex questions sparked by its existence. For instance:

“What about using lasers to kill? That’s where most people’s minds go first when they hear about this technology. But Dahm said that it’s not in the immediate future. In recent wars, “there’s been a tremendous value placed on low collateral strikes,” and lasers certainly could technically allow for that one day. But he emphasized that they would also have to consider the psychological effects that that would have on witnesses. With current “kinetic strikes,” a person dies virtually instantly. That might be “ethically more acceptable” than a slower death—directed energy weapons could take several seconds to kill someone. Furthermore, bystandersmight be “traumatized very significantly.” Upon being asked by an audience member what would actually happen physically, Dahm said that they aren’t quite sure, since for obvious reasons it hasn’t been tested on humans, but ‘it wouldn’t be pretty.’”

Read Bosch’s full account here.

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A Slate Magazine/New America Foundation partnership on transformative technology.