By LISA HOFFMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
January 26, 2006
Using an invisible ray that travels at the speed of light, the soldier zaps the driver with a bolt of energy that feels like a body-wide bee sting. The beam's punch, which leaves neither a burn nor residual pain, instantly stops the driver.
When the soldier approaches the car, he finds not an insurgent intent on attack but a confused civilian who didn't understand the order to halt. If the beam had been a bullet, an innocent Iraqi would be dead.
That is one scenario that boosters use to describe the potential utility of the revolutionary "Active Denial System," a non-lethal weapon developed at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Whether it will make it to Iraq anytime soon is unclear.
While some U.S. commanders in Iraq have pressed the Pentagon to quickly dispatch it to the Iraq battlefield, the lone, $51 million prototype _ which took a decade to create _ remains under review, Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Susan Idziak said Tuesday.
According to the trade publication InsideDefense.com, the head of the Army's Rapid Equipping Force has requested that the directed-energy weapon be rushed to the field, where it would be used to head off insurgent attacks and prison uprisings.
"We know the Army has requested it. No decision on the deployment has been made," Idziak said, adding that the weapon is working its way through an assessment process designed to accelerate the delivery of new technology to troops in the trenches.
For Doug Beason, author of "The E-Bomb: How America's New Directed-Energy Weapons Will Change the Way Future Wars Will Be Fought," the slow pace is puzzling. Beason, who is director of defense threat reduction at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a leading expert in directed-energy research, says extensive testing has shown that the weapon lives up to its billing.
"I just cannot think of any reason not to send it over," said Beason, who said he was speaking only for himself and not for Los Alamos or any other government entity with which he is affiliated.
Neither can Jack Fischer, a spokesman for Raytheon Missile Systems, which built the device. "I don't know of any issues that would cause a problem," said Fischer, who speculated that the military may be taking time to decide just where in Iraq to put it.
If the prototype makes it to Iraq, it would be mounted on a Humvee from where its transmitter would send a narrow beam toward a subject. The ultra-high frequency millimeter waves of electromagnetic energy penetrate less than 1/64th of an inch, heating up the skin's surface and causing a stinging sensation.
A one-second burst heats the skin and triggers the human-pain reflex to recoil. The discomfort stops instantly when the beam is shut off or the person moves out of its way.
To burn flesh, according to the weapon's designers, someone would have to endure the beam for 250 seconds. During 6,500 test applications on human volunteers, no one was able to tough out the stinging for longer than three seconds, according to the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland. In all those tests, just one person was hurt, suffering a coin-sized burn on his back after the device had been incorrectly programmed.
Support for the system is far from universal. Some human-rights groups say they are unconvinced that the weapon is as benign as it has been touted, and are concerned that such a "pain ray" could cause side effects not yet apparent. Its potential use as an instrument of torture also troubles them.
Brett Wagner, president of the California Center for Strategic Studies in Ventura, Calif., warns that the introduction of such a weapon means that, some day, it will be used against U.S. troops, either after an enemy gets hold of one or after the technology spreads worldwide.
On a more basic level, he said the very existence of a weapon designed to create pain is abhorrent and would be a "public-relations disaster" if deployed in Iraq.
"I categorically think the whole thing's a bad idea," Wagner said.
But Beason, Fischer and others say such criticism misses the whole point of the device, which was designed in the quest for more humane weapons of war.
"It's a less-than-lethal weapon (with which) you can save lives," Fischer said.
Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service.
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