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Frikkin’ laser beams
Posted by: Bryan Pick on Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Today the US DoD "unveiled" a system that I've been discussing with my friends for years now, a nonlethal directed-energy weapon (DEW for short; here's the Wikipedia entry and here's a short overview) that, erm, strongly motivates human targets to scatter by firing an invisible beam that creates an intense burning sensation in the skin.

I use quotes around "unveiled" because it hasn't exactly been a secret for a while: the very news services reporting on the weapon today (like AP) already had stories on the weapon back in 2004, and it was revealed by other sites as far back as 2001. Milblogs and others have been discussing the potential of DEWs for some time now.

It's called the Active Denial System (ADS; Wiki link), and even the vehicle-mounted version has a much longer range (an impressive 500 yards, perhaps further) than existing nonlethal weapons.
The system has been delayed, from what I understand, for some time. It's been under development for well over a decade and at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, and it may finally go into production by 2010.

Wired (which I remember covering directed-energy weapons back in 2004 and 2005) recently wrote up an easy-reading article that covers most frequently asked questions about ADS, like:
"Does it cause lasting damage?"
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.
And if the military is willing to try it out on news reporters (volunteers all), as they did in the breaking story, they're pretty confident.
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 says.
[T]he 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.
"Okay, no lasting damage usually, but how long does the pain last?"
The pain ceases as soon as the beam's no longer on you.

"Microwaves, eh? Couldn't people just wear tinfoil under their shirts?"
The beam 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.
And the AP report says that officials "refused to comment on whether the waves can go through glass."

Every branch of the military is interested, since a long-range disabling weapon—that travels at the speed of light, no less—has a wide range of applications.

Base security, for one, was covered by the AP article:
Airman Blaine Pernell, 22, said he could have used the system during his four tours in Iraq, where he manned watchtowers around a base near Kirkuk. He said Iraqis often pulled up and faked car problems so they could scout U.S. forces.

"All we could do is watch them," he said. But if they had the ray gun, troops "could have dispersed them."
You can pack it on top of a Stryker or Humvee for mobile ground use, which is apparently what the military used on the reporters, but last I heard, that draws so much power that the vehicle has to stop and practically shut down before firing it. It has also apparently been fitted to AC-130 gunships, which leads me to believe that versions of the weapon have been produced with much longer ranges.

Yet the ADS, like every nonlethal weapon, is heavily scrutinized because of the potential for abuse ("Will the version in the field be as harmless as the one used on reporters?", etc.) and because, presumably, exotic new technologies like this are hard to sell to a skeptical public. Hence, the reporters themselves being subjected to the weapon.

(Of course, I can imagine any pain-causing technology being abused. Throw a man in a small jail cell or tie him to a chair and light him up with an ADS; presto, instant torture. If they were careful enough about it, they could probably even do it without leaving marks on the detainee's body.)

Then, of course, there are those who oppose any new weapon almost on principle. But after reading similar comments at several sites, I have to ask, Why?

Why oppose battlefield (or riot zone) use of the ADS, which can allow our servicemen and -women to stop a suspicious person at long range rather than (A) let the person close distance and potentially harm our troops, or (B) have our servicemen shoot (lethally) first and ask questions later?

It's precisely these ethical and operational questions that lead me to believe that directed energy has a big part to play in future combat operations. Especially once these weapons get smaller (even as small as rifle-sized, perhaps with a battery in the backpack), there are all kinds of potential military applications.

If you can disable people all around a combat zone without killing them—perhaps so you can get in, detain a high-value target and get out—you don't really have to (for example) discriminate between innocent civilians and enemy combatants who dress like civilians. Instead of killing anyone who gets too close to a vehicle convoy (hey, you don't know if he has a bomb strapped to him, or a gun hidden in his clothing), just zap 'im for a few seconds at a few hundred meters (much further than bombs and much effective small arms fire usually reach) and keep moving. Furthermore, if you can make a combatant stop and drop without putting a bullet in him, you're more likely to be able to detain and question him.

That adds up to fewer "collateral" losses of innocents and more flexibility for our troops. Whatever your human rights concerns, aren't the consequences of not having such a system worse?

Heck, if they can miniaturize it, why not allow it in more mundane civilian/police applications? A short shock of pain is better than being shot, and as the North Hollywood bank robbery/shootout illustrated, bullets aren't always as effective as something like the ADS could be.

Then again, if the consequences of "shooting" someone with an ADS instead of a bullet seem lighter, that may encourage the use of the ADS in situations that one might consider inappropriate, like a summary lighting-up of a suspect "just to make sure."

In any case, please discuss. I welcome comments on these weapons and other directed-energy weapons.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

Active Denial systems sow promise.
They’ve always worked for the Democrats.

Written By: Bithead
URL: http://
Ahh, the perfect weapon for an otherwise reluctant army to fire upon its own citizenry, during times of, say, martial law.

Brilliant! I’ll take a dozen for security at my venue.
Written By: Rick Day
One could certainly worry about that, yes. Although... do riot gear-enabled police usually lose to crowds these days?

In any case, Rick, what would you think about the citizenry getting their own hands on future lower-cost, rifle-size (or smaller) versions? Home/personal defense without the bloodshed or horrible accidents, perhaps?
Written By: Bryan Pick
Civilian uses:

Clear the bar at 2:00 a.m. closing time with much less fuss then ringing the last call bell and throwing drunks out.

Kids will be easier to clear off lawns. No need to yell at ’em. Just turn a switch. (works with dogs and cats, too.)

Written By: Harun
URL: http://
I loved the bureaucratese I saw on one of the reports, in particular that the weapon "elicits highly-motivated escape behavior." I laughed out loud.
Written By: Wiz
URL: http://
Yeah, the DoD apparently doesn’t want to just say, "It makes ’em feel like they’re on fire, so they skedaddle. Like, automatic-like." That would make the millions of dollars seem like a waste.

Plus, bureaucratese wording for dramatic things is fun to write. It’s like writing deadpan comedy.
Written By: Bryan Pick
You mean like "hexiform rotational fastening device" for "nut"?
Written By: McQ
On the other hand, James Cobb’s prediction, in Target Lock, copyright 2002, that the USS Randy Cunningham would be equipped with such a system is unlikely to come true.
Written By: triticale
Ahh, the perfect weapon for an otherwise reluctant army to fire upon its own citizenry, during times of, say, martial law.
So, Rick you prefer, FMJ bullets? rubber bullets? water cannons (heh heh, those tickle....), bayonets, shields and trunchons, pepper spray, tear gas?

What is it you like about the current lethal and ’non-lethal’ methods for an otherwise reluctant army to use during times of, say, martial law?

Before you answer, let me ask - where were you on May 4, 1970?

I know your type - if Henry Ford started mass producing trucks today and sold them to the Army, you’d instantly observe it was an excellent means for moving troops in to break up union strikes at coal mines.

Though, I don’t know, President H. Clinton strikes me as a bit of an authoritarian who would ruthlessly suppress dissent, so if martial law is declared nation wide, you’ll probably have bigger concerns than these beam weapons.
Written By: looker
URL: http://
Before you answer, let me ask - where were you on May 4, 1970?
Ah Kent State.

A year later, I was one of these guys ...
...including 4,000 paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division.
... assembled by the US Treasury building and the 14th Street Bridge anticipating something similar which, thankfully, never materialized.

BTW, looker (and I know you know this), Rick never responds ... he’s a drive-by commenter.
Written By: McQ
BTW, looker (and I know you know this), Rick never responds
Yeah, I’ve noticed, this kind of crap just irks the snot out of me though.

Some people act like sh*t hasn’t already happened here that didn’t cause enough civil upset to send us to nationwide martial law using the plain old brute force systems we already have. I drove across half the country on 9/11 - 9/12, people I encountered were prepared to expect, and accept, serious ’disaster mode’ changes that we never had to use.

So I love it, this talk of the danger of martial law just because there’s a new weapon system to be deployed.
Like, these Active Denial systems were all the military or ’government’ was waiting for to implement "the take over".

Some people watch too many movies and believe AM talk radio between the hours of midnight and six.
Course they frequently think the IRS can’t collect income-tax legally, and probably bought health insurance policies from the Texas woman who claimed she was a ’CIA-Agent’ who could use satellites to scan their bodies for disease, and administer secret drugs that would cure them while they slept (that one is true, heard it today and thought, shoot, these people can vote for Presidents too!).
Written By: looker
URL: http://
looker -

As much as I’d like to be able to completely dismiss Rick Day’s concerns, let’s make a few observations:

1. These systems are going to be quite expensive and large for some time to come, more suited to state use than civilian use. That, plus the possibility that civilians may not even be allowed to make use of the technology ("These things have no other purpose than to cause pain! Ban them! [except for police use]" sound familiar?), means the state has one more advantage (in flexibility of coercive measures) over its citizens.

2. This system has a much longer range (and, it appears, much greater accuracy at any range) than any other existing nonlethal weapons, and it’s virtually instantly effective.

3. Riot control(lers) will be taught that these things are very unlikely to cause long-term damage, so they will be less hesitant to pull the trigger. They won’t have to worry much about what part of the body to aim at, or what kind of targets they aim at: it’s basically equally effective against people of any age, sex, and size, because it’s just designed to set off a panic reflex.
In addition to individual riot control officers being less hesitant, presumably the state would be more willing to deploy riot control in the first place, if they believed they could defuse a situation without too much drama (invisible beams at half a kilometer don’t make for sexy TV quite like tear gas at thirty yards and welts from rubber bullets do).

All of these things might be desirable, in many situations (like, say, in Baghdad, as an alternative to bloodshed). What Rick fears is that governments empowered by such a weapon may feel a bit bolder about what they can do to their own people. A little less of the V-esque "governments should be afraid of their people" effect, if you will. Rick may be overdoing it, but it’s reasonable to expect that some governments will take advantage once they’re more insulated against "their people."

I’d personally be more worried about that if I were in China or France than I would be in the U.S., but it’s a valid concern. At least, until/unless civilians themselves get their own hands on these puppies. Then it’s a whole other ballgame.
Written By: Bryan Pick
Bryan, it’s a big RF emitter that has to emit to do anything. It can only work a few freqs that can be known ahead of time.

DIY ARAD, anyone?

Doesn’t even need a lethal warhead if a sudden close reflector can make the thing burn itself out—or shut itself down in self protection.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp

PS. I’ve heard making peaceful change impossible makes violent change inevitable—they can’t change ethat without killing the geese laying the golden eggs, can they?
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://
Nah, in the US as it stands today, and the foreseeable tomorrows, and I’ve seen a couple, I don’t see it happening. Never is a long time, so I won’t go there.

Assume more in the near future, for the moment, it gets used in a situation where it’s questionable, say an otherwise peaceful march of the anti World Trade Organization types (those guys DO out of hand) - it’s not something ’they’ are going to be able to keep secret, questionably used or otherwise. Many people reporting suddenly being on-fire without actually burning isn’t going to escape any one’s notice, and since we understand the capability is extent, we know the probable source. Then the investigations commence. New laws restraining their use are passed. Freedom to overturn cars reigns in the streets of Detroit!

Look, we can’t even agree currently on securing our own borders properly, and I’m supposed to be concerned about the potentials for martial law implementation using beam weapons?
The long range concerns are probably negated by LOS requirements - a direct path between the emitter and the targets. No structures in the way, meaning you probably can’t sit half a klick out of the city and drive off the nasty bread line protesters without them knowing about it (not to mention the idea that your beam, if so capable is going to impact people you weren’t trying to target, like law enforcement manning cordons).
Things like street signs and traffic lights may block the beam. Simple shields made from aluminum may deflect them. Protesters are going to find the mechanisms for negating them if they exist, just as they do currently for tear gas. If the cops have and wear ’anti beam’ gear, the protesters will find working equivalents. Evolution of Arms vs Armor - the age old game.

I probably need to go read on the tech now (heh heh, having shot off my mouth), but I’ll be surprised if this is a magic bullet that can be used from indirect fire locations and is ’all seeing’ when used in direct fire mode.

I don’t look for it suddenly making things more dangerous for the Chinese - hell, their government is already prepared to run people over with ACVs - how is being driven off in one piece worse than that?
The French? Well, I’m trying to decide if kids burning cars and rampaging through the streets aren’t worthy of being driven off.
Same applies if they’re US citizens getting excited about their team winning the NBA finals BTW.
I see this as another potential tool for handling unruly protesters, and with less actual harm if the tech is safe, nothing more.

Are there countries where the people ARE going to need to worry about it constantly employed for trivial reasons - oh yeah, I can think of plenty.

But Mr. Day is trying to say we’re one of them, and we’re not.
Written By: looker
URL: http://
This should be effective at segregating the wolves and sheep.
The sheep are going to flee, leaving the wolves to be dealt with by more personal means.

Anyone not running from this beam is ’ready’ for it,
and is therefore? a witch! sorry, a wolf.
Written By: looker
URL: http://
"and is therefore? a witch!"
Only if they drown trying to cool off.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://
"Things like street signs and traffic lights may block the beam. Simple shields made from aluminum may deflect them."

Hah! And there are those who scoff at the utility and effectiveness of tin-foil hats(more properly known as Aluminum Foil Deflector Beany, or AFDB). Learn more, before it is too late. Owning a weapon is not enough, if THEY control where you aim it.

You will thank me later.
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
Chuckle, I was wondering if some clown wrapped himself in a mylar ’Space Blanket’ how effective that would be at turning the beam.’re going to have to wear some reflective eye protection too.
And anyone wearing a space blanket under their clothes is going to be ’warm’ already.
Written By: looker
URL: http://

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