Unseen but powerful

While it might sound like something out of
Star Wars, directed energy weapons (DEWs) are becoming an operational
reality. With an ability to manipulate streams of electromagnetic
energy at the speed of light (about 186,000 miles per second) these
weapons can immobilize potential attackers, fry the electronics of
roadside bombs and even disable a vehicle in a high-speed chase. The
Air Force ResearchLaboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate (DED)
located at the Phillips Research Site in New Mexico has been working on
developing directed energy concepts for more than 50 years.

Burning sensation

After having invested $51 million over an
11-year period, DED has finally created a working prototype of a
non-lethal, anti-personnel directed energy weapon—the Active Denial
System (ADS).

The system works by directing an invisible
beam of focused energy at the subject, which heats the water molecules
under his skin’s surface. The resulting sensation of intolerable heat,
lasting just as long as the person is exposed to the beam, makes him
flee immediately.

“It triggers the pain sensors into feeling as
if they were on fire,” said Juventino Garcia, a spokesperson for the
Directed Energy Directorate. “Individuals that are experiencing the
energy waves are not incapacitated but their concentration is on trying
to avoid the sensation. An operator would typically sweep an advancing
crowd, all of whom would turn away and flee.”

Garcia, who was a volunteer test subject,
said that he experienced no after effects but added that he found the
technology extremely effective.

“Out of four ‘shots’ my longest exposure was
around two seconds,” he said. “My understanding is that none of the
test subjects lasted more than three seconds.”

Raytheon Co., headquartered in Lexington,
Mass., has been contracted to build the first Humvee-mounted prototype,
which will subsequently be evaluated before a decision on its
deployment is reached in 2005. In addition to its military
applications, ADS is expected to be used in riot control, peacekeeping
and humanitarian missions. Garcia added that there were no current
plans to build a hand-held version.

Setting to ‘stun’

Presently, the only DEWs available to police
or the military are “illuminators” or “dazzlers”, which are essentially
laser torches. Designed to be eye safe, they use a low power laser to
temporarily dazzle a person. (Lasers specifically designed to blind
have been banned internationally as inhumane).

While some believe that high power microwave
weapons have already seen their first use in last year’s attacks on
Iraq by the United States, there has been no acknowledged use of these
weapons, whose development remains extremely secret. The US Department
of Defense increased funding for them from around $25 million in 2003
to $44 million in 2004, a relatively small sum.

Non-lethal weapons have been gaining
increasing popularity, with a number of organizations jumping in to
create wireless stun guns.

Funded by the Pentagon, HSV Technologies Inc.
in San Diego, Calif., is developing an anti-personnel beam weapon that
aims to utilize ultraviolet laser energy to freeze people and animals
at a distance. A person’s skeletal muscles would effectively ‘contract’
when hit, freezing them in place, leaving all their vital functions
unimpaired otherwise.

Another such weapon, the StunStrike, fires a
non-lethally tuned visible lightning bolt and is being developed by
Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems (XADS) in Anderson, Ind. Designed
for use by the US Marine Corps for crowd control and security purposes,
the weapons are due out in 2005. Another company, Ionatron of Tuscon,
Arizona, plans to supply a prototype wireless vehicle-mounted weapon to
the DOD by the end of the year.

The Holy Grail, though, in DEW engineering is
creation of a Star Trek-type phaser with the ability to switch among a
varying degree of capabilities—from immobilizing people at low energy
levels to being able to melt the skin of aircraft and tanks at higher

“It’s the ideal put forward by some advocates
in military and police circles,” said Neil Davison, project coordinator
at the Non-lethal Weapons Research Project, University of Bradford in
the United Kingdom. “For variable [directed energy] weapons like lasers
and microwaves, it is possible to vary the intensity of the energy
transmitted. Whether this will be translated into the ‘tunable’
non-lethal weapon, which can be changed from ‘stun’ to ‘kill,’ remains
to be seen.”


Fueled by the recent number of deaths
allegedly caused by Tasers, the use of directed energy on humans has
aroused controversy. Data on the human effects of ADS have not been
made public and many believe that the health effects have yet to be
adequately researched.

Dr. Robin Coupland, a medical advisor at the
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) expressed his concerns
in a May 2004 report, Research Report 5, published by the Bradford
Non-Lethal Weapons Research Project.

“How safe would a totally incapacitated
person be?” he asked. “Imagine a soldier entering an area in which
enemy combatants have been incapacitated; they are standing or lying
still with their weapons at hand with their eyes fixed on the sky.
There is limited visibility. How will the attacking soldier, when
rushing into attack, know his enemy has been incapacitated? The most
likely scenario is that the soldier will shoot because he or she is
trained to do so reflexively in battle. In other words, being
incapacitated could simply serve to increase the vulnerability to
attack by conventional weapons. It is a possibility that as a result of
non-lethal weapons being used on the battlefield, the battlefield could
become more lethal.”

Since these weapons don’t leave a trace many
groups feel their potential as an instrument of torture is of grave
concern. Amnesty International’s December 2003 report titled The Pain
Merchants recommends suspending use or transfer of such weapons pending
a rigorous and independent inquiry by appropriate medical, legal,
police and other experts making sure that in each case the effects are
consistent with international human rights standards before making a
decision on deployment.

Pete Bitar, President of XADS says that it’s
easy to make statements in a vacuum. “The StunStrike causes a numbing
effect and only causes pain when someone tries to fight the effect,” he
said. “It would make a particularly poor torture device, because the
target would likely feel nothing—literally nothing. There are much
cheaper ways to torture (a car battery and jumper cables cost about
$40) than the $10,000 expected price of StunStrike. Their words are
poison to our efforts to help fight evil with a kinder, gentler form of
weaponry that we have worked hard to make sure saves lives, causes
minimal (if any) pain, and gets the job done quickly.”

Bill Sewell, Vice President of DMJM
Technology, a design and engineering company based in Arlington, Va.,
agreed. “In my view there are only a few questions to be addressed and
there are a number of organizations that may be overreacting to the
deployment of non-lethal weapons. Non-lethal weapons are not new. Night
sticks, ‘Billy clubs,’ Tasers, pepper spray, tear gas and similar
weapons have been around for some time. Any of these have potential for
abuse and it is the abuse that must be dealt with rather than the
weapons themselves. If the abuse indicates that the weapons should be
banned then so be it but essential tools should not be denied to police
and military personnel because they have the potential for abuse.”

He continued: “We learned at Abu Ghraib that
you don’t need sophisticated weaponry to inflict pain endlessly. The
only trace in many of these cases were the photos. Again, these abusive
people must be dealt with

to the fullest extent of the law. We
shouldn’t really deny progress because of potential problems but should
deal decisively instead with real problems when they arise. The laws
are already in place and the users of non-lethal force need to be
trained in its appropriate use, its limitations and where the lines are
drawn just as the users of lethal force are trained.” HST

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