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In this study, the authors propose the optimal power allocation scheme that minimises the symbol error probability (SER) of vertical Bell Laboratories layered space-time (VBLAST) systems using M-ary modulations. The essence of the power allocation is to intentionally cause different received power from each layer at the receiver. By judiciously allocating the transmitting power to the layers, the performance of the successive interference cancelation at the receiver can be significantly improved. The exact SER of the VBLAST systems with non-uniform power allocation is analysed for the Rayleigh fading case. The SER is minimised to determine the optimal power allocation pattern for the VBLAST systems with M-ary modulations. Simulations show that our SER analysis is accurate and the proposed power allocation scheme significantly improves the performance of the VBLAST systems in fast fading environments by 3.5-4 dB. The work is applied to the power control of VBLAST systems in slow fading environments. Significant SNR gains of 8.5-10 dB are observed in the numerical experiments. It is also observed that the proposed optimal power allocation scheme can effectively reduce the SER variation among the layers.