What if you had a hi-tech weapons system that took less than three seconds to reveal if a suspicious person’s intentions were innocent or hostile?
And what if this “truth serum” could quickly assess an approaching mob and separate hot-headed protesters from curious “joy-riders,” even if they spoke a different language or couldn’t hear your warning signals?
And what if this weapon wasn’t affected by wind or gravity, even at 500 yards, ensuring you could send the person or group fleeing long before any of them could take an accurate offhand shot at you with a weapon of any kind?
And what if your weapon caused little or no lasting pain or discomfort to those it repelled?
Imagine what you could do if your weapon truly was nonlethal, and wouldn’t scar or disfigure its victims. Unlike Tasers, rubber bullets, sponge grenades, tear gas or other projectile-delivered devices, this wonder weapon could never kill anyone, and yet its effective range would be about 10 times farther—roughly 500 yards vs. 50 yards—than any of the current “long-range” nonlethal weapons.
The Future is Now
Such a weapon is no longer the stuff of science-fiction. It’s now ready for deployment. The experts who developed it say it’s the most heavily researched weapon—backed by the most extensive human-health and safety studies—now being considered for U.S. inventories. It’s called the ADS (Active Denial System), and its developers are waiting for one or more branches of the U.S. military to accept it into their weapons arsenal.
In Star Trek terms, ADS could be likened to a large version of Captain James T. Kirk’s phaser gun. But instead of stunning or killing people, the ADS beam makes its point by targeting people without fear of harming them. It delivers an invisible beam that creates such intense skin heat that people instantly take flight. If they return and try to defeat the beam by advancing behind wood, mattresses or even fire-retardant clothing, their efforts will prove futile. The beam can bend around objects; “bounce” off the ground, walls or pavement; and exploit any opening to the skin or eyes. Therefore, in trying to defeat the beam, antagonists reveal their hostile intentions to ADS operators.
In police and military terms, ADS is a counter-personnel, nonlethal, directed-energy weapon. It uses a large, flat-panel antenna to deliver a highly focused beam of millimeter waves at a frequency of 94 to 95 gigahertz. The invisible beam travels at the speed of light, and it penetrates skin just deep enough— 1/64th of an inch, about the thickness of three pieces of paper—to cause an intense heating sensation.
Few people can tolerate the beam more than two or three seconds. Their instinctive response is to avert their eyes, duck away and get out of its path—which is roughly 2 yards wide. Once they’re clear of the unseen “spotlight,” or the operator turns off the beam, the victim’s pain quickly ceases.
Injuries from ADS are rare, with overall injury rates in the “less than 1/10th of 1 percent” category. In fact, over the past 13 years, ADS has delivered more than 11,000 strikes to more than 700 individual test-volunteers at various stages of the weapon’s development, with many people getting zapped more than 10 times. The entire injury tally is a mere 11 cases of second-degree burns with blisters, with only two requiring medical attention. Both healed without complications. No eye injuries have been reported.
How The ADS Works
Those who have been hit by the ADS millimeter beam describe it various ways. CBS News correspondent David Martin reported on ADS in the March 2, 2008, “Ray Gun” episode of 60 Minutes. While filming his report, Martin subjected himself to about 17 hits. He said it felt like getting hit by scalding water. Others say it feels like a giant hair-drier turned on maximum heat at close range.
“I’ve been hit by the beam maybe 10 to 15 times, and it’s an immediate heating sensation,” said Susan LeVine, principal deputy director for policy and strategy in the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate in Quantico, VA. “It immediately gets your attention. You’re not writhing in pain, but you’re getting out of there now.”
Stephanie Miller works for AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory) at Brooks-City Base near San Antonio, TX. She’s a technology adviser for the Radio Frequency Radiation Branch of the lab’s Directed-Energy Bioeffects Division. She said a common misconception is that the beam itself is hot. In reality, heat results from the beam interacting with water molecules in whatever it hits. “There’s typically very little water in clothing, but there’s a lot of water in your body, and so the beam goes through clothing and is absorbed by the water in your skin,” Miller said. “In our tests, we’ve had people waddle down the road in a fire suit. One guy said he could feel the beam come through the fire suit. He said he felt like a piece of toast.”
Although the beam can’t penetrate a concrete barrier or a solid metal surface, it passes through tiny cracks and openings with ease. “If there’s any kind of a crack or anything surrounding you, the energy gets through and hits you,” said Gordon Hengst, who also works at AFRL. Miller and Hengst have worked for years in directed-energy bioeffects.
“We’ve had people hide behind concrete barriers, and the beam got through that little gap at the bottom where a forklift picks them up,” Hengst said. “They started jumping.”
What if it’s been raining and a person’s clothes are soaked? Miller said there would be some initial reduction in the heat intensity, but the beam would quickly evaporate the moisture from the clothing, and the skin would soon receive the beam’s full effect. Experiments where people held up a 3/4-inch piece of wet plywood also proved ineffective.
“The guys said it was great for a few seconds, and then it was like the wood had a hole in it,” Miller said. “The beam has some ‘lensing’ capabilities, so it can bend around the edges of things like plywood and hit you. It’s very difficult to avoid.”
Besides, when people take counter-measures, they’re revealing their intentions.
“The point of this is to provide soldiers a device that determines someone’s intent at long distances,” Hengst said. “So, if they’re coming at you holding a board or they’re wrapped in aluminum foil, you kind of know their intent isn’t likely to be good. This would help determine if the soldiers needed to protect themselves with lethal means.”
After early prototypes were developed and tested, many military and police officials quickly grasped how ADS might solve the age-old dilemma nicknamed the “barking dog syndrome.” That is, a policeman can pull his gun on a hostile dog that’s protecting property or its unconscious owner, but then what? Most dogs aren’t persuaded by an officer’s gun or soothing words. Lacking an intermediate option, the policeman might be forced to shoot the dog to save its owner or enter the property.
The importance of effective nonlethal options was also demonstrated in April 2003 when U.S. forces in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, were confronted by a large, angry crowd of anti-American protesters. The confrontation escalated into a shootout that left 18 Iraqis dead and 78 wounded. ADS might have dispersed the crowd long before it threatened U.S. troops. ADS might also have saved 17 U.S. Navy sailors if it had been available in October 2000 when suicide terrorists struck the USS Cole as it refueled in Yemen.
Other common scenarios come to mind: The Navy could use ADS to drive away Iranians in “go-fast” boats before they can harass American warships in the Strait of Hormuz. Marines could use it to protect U.S. embassies around the world from combative protesters. And given a choice between using ADS from a safe distance, or placing officers in riot gear to confront rioting prisoners, or mobs of looters or demonstrators, police agencies would prefer a system that’s more likely to defuse emotional situations than ignite them.
Some suggest that conventional “nonlethal” weapons provide enough options, but they’re effective only after police or military personnel are within range of their antagonist’s small-arms fire. If the antagonists are unarmed and get within effective range of conventional nonlethals, just how “nonlethal” are those devices? People regularly suffer broken bones, inflamed lungs, burning eyes or even agonizing death when those options are deployed. In February 2007, two protesters in Kosovo died after getting shot in the head at close range with rubber bullets fired by United Nations peacekeeping police.
Lt. Sid Heal of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department put it this way in a recent address at a RAND Corporation conference: “It’s very difficult to make a case for a humanitarian operation if the only means we have of imposing our will is by killing the people we’re sent to protect. The situations we become involved in tend to be evolutionary in nature. It takes substantial provocation to be able to justify lethal force. Nonlethals allow more control because we’re allowed to intervene at an earlier stage in the process.”
Heal entered law-enforcement in 1975, but he also served 35 years in the Marine Corps on active duty and the reserves. He retired from the Corps as a chief warrant officer, and was once its lead person for nonlethal weapons. His overseas tours included work with nonlethal weapons in Somalia in 1995. Closer to home, he sees potential for the ADS in controlling prison riots and other mob scenarios.
“Mobs are not homogenous,” Seal said in his RAND conference address. “The mob mentality exists, but not to the extent everyone believes. There are different levels of commitment within a crowd. Many people are simply waiting to find out where the line is and how far they can push it. If we don’t have the ability to intervene at an early stage, the line moves to a point [where] we’re forced to take action.”
With all the obvious needs for a truly nonlethal weapons system to control incendiary situations at home and abroad, why isn’t ADS protecting embassies, compounds, ships, ports and other strategic sites where “friendlies” can’t easily be distinguished from bad guys?
The recent 60 Minutes episode blamed most of the military’s reluctance on the infamous incidents of torture at Abu Graib in Iraq. When Air Force Assistant Secretary Sue Payton appeared on the 60 Minutes episode she said: “You don’t ever, ever, ever want a system like this to be thought of as a torture weapon.”
But the reluctance to quickly push ADS into active duty is also linked to the weapon’s science-fiction aura and little public knowledge of its technology. After all, no fear is greater than that of the unknown. That also explains why the government’s Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate has put so much effort into the assessing ADS’s impact on humans.
In fact, the government program studying ADS’s effectiveness and safety risks has been evaluated three times by an independent advisory group called the HEAP (Human Effects Advisory Panel). Each time—2002, 2004 and 2007—this independent group of multi-discipline professors from Penn State, Yale, Temple and the University of Virginia concluded, “ADS is a nonlethal weapon that has a high probability of effectiveness with a low probability of injury.”
The panel’s February 2008 report praised the Air Force Research Laboratory’s research into ADS, and the way AFRL welcomed outside scrutiny, criticisms and recommendations. One HEAP member said: “Other research endeavors should be so thorough.”
In fact, the panel concluded: “The greatest challenge may be public acceptability, particularly with those who don’t understand millimeter waves and who believe it has exotic effects. AFRL’s research has provided an excellent understanding of the energy’s bioeffects.”
Dr. Diana Loree at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, NM, is program manager and technical manager for ADS. She acknowledges that challenge. “It’s simply a radio-frequency transmitter,” she said. “You’re not amazed when you hop into your car and hear a radio. It’s invisible but you’re not freaked out by it. It’s the same thing here, but it’s just transmitting at a higher frequency than the radio signals going into your car.”
Those involved in the project realize ADS will require a long-term educational effort. That’s why Levine and others regularly volunteer to show people it’s not dangerous. She said there’s nothing enjoyable about getting zapped by ADS, but adds: “I want to show people it’s OK. I don’t like it, but I do it because I’m very confident it’s safe.”
Hengst agrees. “There’s really nothing particularly exotic about this technology,” he said. “But because it’s a nonlethal system, we’ve gone to excruciating details to understand what effects there really are. We’ve had to answer several tough questions, even when we know scientifically that there’s no valid reason for their concerns.”
Among those concerns are questions about cancer and reproduction. Miller said those issues have been addressed. “This frequency doesn’t have enough energy to kick electrons out of their orbit so it can’t cause cancer, but we wanted to make sure it couldn’t worsen someone’s cancer,” she said. “Human reproduction isn’t an issue because the energy is absorbed in the skin’s top 1/64th of an inch. Reproductive organs are much deeper, so there’s no scientific reason to think there’d be an impact. But we still studied those concerns just to make sure.”
Still other critics argue that ADS isn’t cost-effective, especially for domestic use by law-enforcement agencies. When Sid Heal hears that argument, he cites a 1997 lawsuit where the L.A. Sheriff’s Department lost $23 million in one lawsuit. “For the first time in history, it (became) cost-effective to go out and find effective nonlethal weapons,” he said. “If we employ a nonlethal (weapon) and it fails and we end up killing the guy, we’ve sent an implicit message: We tried not to use lethal force, but the technology was just not there.”
The Next Step
When will the technology be deployed by the U.S. military or even LE agencies? No one can say for sure, but ADS is ready when they are.
“We really have demonstrated [the effectiveness of] this technology,” Levine said. “There’s certainly a lot of interest in it, a lot of talk about it, and a lot of excitement about it, but this is still a tough decision for the Armed Services. They’re now going through their budgeting process for fiscal year 2010 and beyond, but they have so many budget priorities.
“ADS System 2 is in the final stages of acceptance testing, and the government will be taking ownership of it within the next few months. Then we’ll see what happens. We’re just waiting to see if one or more of [the Armed Services] pick it up.”
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