The U.S. Military is ready to deploy the 'Pain Ray,' a non-lethal weapon meant to control crowds by zapping them with an electromagnetic wave to create the sensation of unbearable heat.
Officially called the Active Denial System (ADS), the weapon emits high-frequency waves that heat flesh -- much like a microwave oven does -- by exciting molecules. But unlike a microwave, which delivers waves of between 1 and 3 GHz on average and can penetrate deeply enough to cook food, the ADS waves have a frequency of 95 GHz and can only penetrate the outermost layer of human skin.
The military claims to have tested the weapon on over 11,000 people, noting that only two so far required medical treatment afterwards. Those two suffered second-degree burns and have since fully recovered.
This technology has been under development for years; as early as 2005, troops abroad have requested that the weapon be delivered to them on rush order. Military.com reports that in December of that year, Colonel James Brown, commander of the 18th Military Police Brigade in Iraq, requested the system to suppress insurgent attacks and quell prison uprisings. A similar request was made in 2006 by Marine Corps Brigadier General Robert Neller, also in Iraq, who issued an urgent statement requesting ADS for entry control and observation posts, as well as counter-sniper initiatives.
But ADS has never been activated during a military operation, despite the fact that it was deployed to Afghanistan briefly in 2010. General Stanley McChrystal sent the machine back, anticipating that the Taliban might see the weapon as a propaganda opportunity and accuse the United States of microwaving Afghans. Since then, the weapon has undergone more testing and seen more public trial runs. The military reports no instances of radiation-related side effects; therefore, the technology has not been upgraded since 2010.
Renewed media attention is the result of a video (below) released on March 9 by USFORCESTV, a PR move intended to head off public concerns about the weapon's safety. It can deter individuals on a military perimeter, all the way up to a riotous crowd, all without permanent harm, assures the video's narrator.
Journalists, military personnel and other volunteers have subjected themselves to blasts from the ADS, which is effective from over half a mile away. On Monday, Wired columnist Spencer Ackerman described his own Pain Ray experience. When the signal goes out over radio to shoot me, there's no warning -- no flash, no smell, no sound, no round, he said. Suddenly my chest and neck feel like they've been exposed to a blast furnace, with a sting thrown in for good measure.
Marine Colonel Tracy Tafolla explained during a media demonstration that the ADS is the military's safest non-lethal weapon, capable of scattering people without hurting them. There are a lot of misperceptions out there, he said, according to Defense News. This provides the safest means and also provides the greatest range. He anticipates that the machine will be useful for checkpoint and perimeter security, infrastructure defense and mob diffusion.
Aside from safety concerns, the weapon does have some design flaws. Ackerman reports that the potency of a zap will go down in conditions of heavy dust or precipitation, and that the machine takes 16 hours to boot up. To avoid a long wait should the weapon become necessary, it would ideally be kept running on standby at all times, requiring excessive amounts of fuel during a time of budgetary cutbacks. That's something we've really got to look hard at: how do we make the system as efficient as possible, said Tafolla.
Due to these flaws and some remaining concerns about the weapon's image, the Pentagon has not yet ordered any Pain Rays for operations abroad. Tafolla says that the weaponry is ready for use as soon as it's requested.