Laser beams are famously employed as weapon systems in science fiction, but actual laser weapons are still in the experimental stage. The general idea of laser-beam weaponry is to hit a target with a train of brief pulses of light. The rapid evaporation and expansion of the surface causes shockwaves that damage the target. The power needed to project a high-powered laser beam of this kind is beyond the limit of current mobile power technology thus favoring chemically powered gas dynamic lasers.
Lasers of all but the lowest powers can potentially be used as incapacitating weapons, through their ability to produce temporary or permanent vision loss in varying degrees when aimed at the eyes. The degree, character, and duration of vision impairment caused by eye exposure to laser light varies with the power of the laser, the wavelength(s), the collimation of the beam, the exact orientation of the beam, and the duration of exposure. Lasers of even a fraction of a watt in power can produce immediate, permanent vision loss under certain conditions, making such lasers potential non-lethal but incapacitating weapons. The extreme handicap that laser-induced blindness represents makes the use of lasers even as non-lethal weapons morally controversial, and weapons designed to cause blindness have been banned by the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons. The U.S. Air Force is currently working on the YAL-1 airborne laser, mounted in a Boeing 747, to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles over enemy territory.
In the field of aviation, the hazards of exposure to ground-based lasers deliberately aimed at pilots have grown to the extent that aviation authorities have special procedures to deal with such hazards.
On March 18, 2009 Northrop Grumman claimed that its engineers in Redondo Beach had successfully built and tested an electrically powered solid state laser capable of producing a 100-kilowatt beam, powerful enough to destroy an airplane or a tank. According to Brian Strickland, manager for the United States Army's Joint High Power Solid State Laser program, an electrically powered laser is capable of being mounted in an aircraft, ship, or other vehicle because it requires much less space for its supporting equipment than a chemical laser. However the source of such a large electrical power in a mobile application remains unclear.
Several novelists described devices similar to lasers, prior to the discovery of stimulated emission:
- A laser-like device was described in Alexey Tolstoy's science fiction novel The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin in 1927.
- Mikhail Bulgakov exaggerated the biological effect (laser bio stimulation) of intensive red light in his science fiction novel Fatal Eggs (1925), without any reasonable description of the source of this red light. (In that novel, the red light first appears occasionally from the illuminating system of an advanced microscope; then the protagonist Prof. Persikov arranges the special set-up for generation of the red light.)