Say Hello to the Goodbye Weapon
By David Hambling
Dec, 05, 2006
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The crowd is
getting ugly. Soldiers roll up in a Hummer. Suddenly, the whole right half
of your body is screaming in agony. You feel like you've been dipped in
molten lava. You almost faint from shock and pain, but instead you stumble
backwards -- and then start running. To your surprise, everyone else is
running too. In a few seconds, the street is completely empty.
You've just been
hit with a new nonlethal weapon that has been certified for use in Iraq --
even though critics argue there may be unforeseen effects.
documents obtained for Wired News under federal sunshine laws, the Air
Force's Active Denial System, or ADS, has been certified safe after lengthy
tests by military scientists in the lab and in war games.
The ADS shoots a
beam of millimeters waves, which are longer in wavelength than x-rays but
shorter than microwaves -- 94 GHz (= 3 mm wavelength) compared to 2.45 GHz
(= 12 cm wavelength) in a standard microwave oven.
The longer waves
are thought to limit the effects of the radiation. If used properly, ADS
will produce no lasting adverse affects, the military argues.
for Wired News using the Freedom of Information Act claim that most of the
radiation (83 percent) is instantly absorbed by the top layer of the skin,
heating it rapidly.
The beam produces
what experimenters call the "Goodbye effect," or "prompt and highly
motivated escape behavior." In human tests, most subjects reached their pain
threshold within 3 seconds, and none of the subjects could endure more than
"It will repel
you," one test subject said. "If hit by the beam, you will move out of it --
reflexively and quickly. You for sure will not be eager to experience it
But while subjects
may feel like they have sustained serious burns, the documents claim effects
are not long-lasting. At most, "some volunteers who tolerate the heat may
experience prolonged redness or even small blisters," the Air Force
describe an elaborate series of investigations involving human subjects.
were military personnel: active, reserve or retired, who volunteered for the
tests. They were unpaid, but the subjects would "benefit from direct
knowledge that an effective nonlethal weapon system could soon be in the
inventory," said one report. The tests ranged from simple exposure in the
laboratory to elaborate war games involving hundreds of participants.
simulated crowd control situations, rescuing helicopter crews in a Black
Hawk Down setting and urban assaults. More unusual tests involved alcohol,
attack dogs and maze-like obstacle courses.
In more than
10,000 exposures, there were six cases of blistering and one instance of
second-degree burns in a laboratory accident, the documents claim.
The ADS was
developed in complete secrecy for 10 years at a cost of $40 million. Its
existence was revealed in 2001 by news reports, but most details of ADS
human testing remain classified. There has been no independent checking of
the military's claims.
The ADS technology
is ready to deploy, and the Army requested ADS-armed Strykers for Iraq last
year. But the military is well aware that any adverse publicity could finish
the program, and it does not want to risk distressed victims wailing about
evil new weapons on CNN.
This may mean yet
more rounds of testing for the ADS.
New bombs can be
rushed into service in a matter of weeks, but the process is more complex
for nonlethal weapons. It may be years before the debates are resolved and
the first directed-energy nonlethal weapon is used in action.
The development of
a truly safe and highly effective nonlethal crowd-control system could raise
enormous ethical questions about the state's use of coercive force. If a
method such as ADS leads to no lasting injury or harm, authorities may find
easier justifications for employing them.
of the big problems with nonlethal weapons is that they can be misused.
Rubber bullets are generally safe when fired at the torso, but head impacts
can be dangerous, particularly at close range. Tasers can become dangerous
if they are used on subjects who have previously been doused with flammable
pepper spray. In the heat of the moment, soldiers or police can forget their
Steve Wright of
Praxis, the Center for the Study of Information and Technology in Peace,
Conflict Resolution and Human Rights, notes that there are occasions when
this has happened in the past. He cites British soldiers, who increased the
weight of baton rounds in Northern Ireland.
the rules of engagement, doctoring the bullets by inserting batteries (to
increase the weight) and firing at closer ranges than allowed," says Wright.
There may also be
technical issues. Wright cites a recent report on CS gas sprays which turned
out to be more dangerous in the field than expected.
"No one had
bothered to check how the sprays actually performed in practice, and they
yielded much more irritant than was calculated in the weapon specification.
This underlines the need for independent checking of any manufacturers'
specifications. Here secrecy is the enemy of safety."
Eye damage is
identified as the biggest concern, but the military claims this has been
thoroughly studied. Lab testing found subjects reflexively blink or turn
away within a quarter of a second of exposure, long before the sensitive
cornea can be damaged. Tests on monkeys showed that corneal damage heals
within 24 hours, the reports claim.
"A speculum was
needed to hold the eyes open to produce this type of injury because even
under anesthesia, the monkeys blinked, protecting the cornea," the report
The risk of cancer
is also often mentioned in connection with the ADS system, despite the
shallow penetration of radiation into the skin.
But the Air Force
is adamant that after years of study, exposure to MMW has not been
demonstrated to promote cancer. During some tests, subjects were exposed to
20 times the permitted dose under the relevant Air Force radiation standard.
The Air Force claims the exposure was justified by demonstrating the safety
of the ADS system.
penetrates clothing, but not stone or metal. Blocking it is harder than you
might think. Wearing a tinfoil shirt is not enough -- you would have to be
wrapped like a turkey to be completely protected. The experimenters found
that even a small exposed area was enough to produce the Goodbye effect, so
any gaps would negate protection. Holding up a sheet of metal won't work
either, unless it covers your whole body and you can keep the tips of your
fingers out of sight.
Wet clothing might
sound like a good defense, but tests showed that contact with damp cloth
actually intensified the effects of the beam.
System 1, the
operational prototype, is mounted on a Hummer and produces a beam with a
2-meter diameter. Effective range is at least 500 meters, which is further
than rubber bullets, tear gas or water cannons. The ammunition supply is
tests went beyond safety, exploring how well the ADS works in practice. In
one war game, an assault team staged a mock raid on a building. The ADS was
used to remove civilians from the battlefield, separating what the military
calls "tourists from terrorists."
It was also used
in a Black Hawk Down scenario, and maritime tests, which saw the ADS
deployed against small boats.
It might also be
used on the battlefield. One war game deployed the ADS in support of an
assault, suppressing incoming fire and obstructing a counterattack.
"ADS has the same
compelling nonlethal effect on all targets, regardless of size, age and
gender," says Capt. Jay Delarosa, spokesman for the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons
Directorate, which decides where and how the ADS might be deployed.
"It can be used to
deny an area to individuals or groups, to control access, to prevent an
individual or individuals from carrying out an undesirable activity, and to
delay or disrupt adversary activity."
results of the military's war games are classified, but Capt. Delarosa
insists that the ADS has proven "both safe and effective in all these
The ADS comes in a
variety of shapes and sizes. As well as System 1, a smaller version has been
fitted to a Stryker armored vehicle -- along with other lethal and nonlethal
weapons -- for urban security operations. Sandia National Labs is looking at
a small tripod-mounted version for defending nuclear installations, and
there is even a portable ADS. And there are bigger versions too.
to enable this capability from an airborne platform -- such as a C-130 --
are being developed at several Air Force Research Laboratory technology
directorates," says Diana Loree, program manager for the Airborne ADS.
The airborne ADS
would supplement the formidable firepower of Special Forces AC-130 gunships,
which currently includes a 105-mm howitzer and 25-mm Gatling guns. The
flying gunboats typically engage targets at a range of two miles or more,
which implies an ADS far more powerful than System 1 has been developed. But
details of the exact power levels, range and diameter of the beam are
New Weapon, Human
Beam It Right
War Dilemma: Iraq