Non-Lethal Weapon Makes Targets Feel Like They're on Fire
Active Denial System Called 'Holy Grail' of Crowd Control but Raises Ethical Questions
By JONATHAN SILVERSTEIN
Dec. 8, 2006 —
"If you're a soldier dealing with an unruly mob, you don't have a lot of options," says Noah Shachtman, editor-in-chief of Defensetech.org. "You have the M-16 option, the bullhorn option, and there's not that much in between."
That is, until now. A new non-lethal weapon developed by the Department of Defense intends to give soldiers a third option in these situations.
The ADS, or Active Denial System, fires an invisible beam that penetrates the top 1/64th of an inch on a target's skin, hitting sensitive pain receptors and causing a burning sensation some have likened to being dipped in molten lava.
When the target steps out of the beam's path, the pain goes away instantly, causing no permanent damage and leaving no marks, bruises or burns.
Some military experts are calling it the Holy Grail of crowd control. But critics fear that after incidents like the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal, the potential for the technology to be used for more sinister means is simply too great.
"The big concern is exactly what it's going to be used for and do we want a weapon that simply causes pain because there are all sorts of ways that this could be misused," said David Hambling, who has monitored the ADS and other non-lethal technologies and written the book "Weapons Grade: How Modern Warfare Gave Birth to Our High-Tech World."
Can we please be honest here? Whatever one thinks about the justifiability of this weapon or its purposes, we can all agree that it will, without a doubt, be used for torture. That's not necessarily a conclusive argument against it --one can also avoid marks with a car battery and jumper cables. But that's the reality.
The ADS looks like a flat radar dish mounted on a military Hummer. Engineers are also developing an airborne, shipboard and hand-held version as well. Operators use a focused camera that shows exactly where the beam will hit and fire on targets from afar, keeping the device and the soldiers around it out of range of small arms fire.
"If you've ever used a blow dryer on your hair, and if you leave the blow dryer in one place for too long, you have to move it away -- it's very similar to that effect," said Susan LeVine, principle deputy for policy and strategy at Defense Department's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program.
An apt analogy, I'm sure.
The device uses millimeter waves that are much easier to control than microwaves but have a similar effect -- they heat things up.
LeVine insisted that millimeter waves are not nearly as harmful as microwaves -- though both can cause cancer. She said extensive testing has proven that the device isn't dangerous beyond the pain it generates.
"It does not penetrate or reach deep into the body, so it's not going to affect your internal organs or pacemaker -- it's only going to touch the outermost surface of the skin," she said. "This is by far the most researched non-lethal weapon in the history of the Department of Defense."
According to LeVine, there are no know long-term side effects and the weapon doesn't cause cancer. She also said that due to the instinctive reaction to close one's eyes and turn away from the heat the beam generates, it has shown no negative effect on a target's eyesight.
LeVine said that testing the ADS on more than 600 volunteers over the last 12 years showed that it makes people run away, leading to David Hambling nicknaming it the "Goodbye Gun."
"When you feel that millimeter wave energy, you get a heating sensation, a clear distinct sensation that you know somebody's telling you to stop your actions and get out of the area," said LeVine.
But what if you're stuck in a crowd? Trapped on the ground or simply unable to get out of the weapon's path?
LeVine said that's not possible due to the operator's training and the camera used to target the device. She said the operator will see what is happening.
And obviously we can trust the operator to not blast the innocent. Obviously she won't be tempted to hold the beam on someone for just a bit longer than necessary. Of course she'll let them up to run away. I'm sure none of us would misuse the weapon when the unruly mob we're trying to control is threatening our injured comrades.
Sarcasm aside, I'm certain that I myself would be very tempted to misuse the weapon in some of the situations its proponents envision. Now, maybe its an option that soldiers should have. If I were in the crowd, I'd rather be tortured for a few moments than shot full of 5.56mm holes. But let's be honest about the fact that it will be misused and misused a lot.
Also, how long do you think it'll be before civilian police forces have these mounted on the roof of every squad car? I'm sure cops won't ever teach the smart-mouthed some respect or disburse nefarious-looking groups with a blast or two.
After all, its not like loud-mouths in libraries are getting Tasered