A directed energy weapon that causes a sensation tantamount to a "bee sting all over the body" to those unlucky enough to be on the receiving end could be deployed before the end of this year, a senior Air Force official said.
Gen. Bruce Carlson, commander of the Air Force Material Command, told National Defense at the Milcom 2005 conference that the non-lethal weapon soon could reach battlefields in Iraq or Afghanistan. "We're months away from fielding it if we need to."
The weapon, called the active denial system, uses millimeter wave technology to inflict debilitating pain without causing death, Carlson said. It shoots a high-frequency beam at the target and penetrates the skin at a third of a millimeter, about the depth of pain-sensing nerves, according to an Air Force news release.
The weapon uses a relatively small amount of power that can be provided by a truck battery. One weapon has already been mounted on a Humvee and tested in the Nevada desert, Carlson said. It has a 1-kilometer range, and can strike an individual or widen its beam slightly to target three or four individuals grouped closely together.
"We can focus it down to an individual . up to a kilometer away, and it essentially feels like . a bee sting all over your body, and that's enough to dissuade just about anybody from pulling a trigger on a weapon or igniting a bomb," Carlson said in a speech.
The weapon could be mounted on an aircraft and aimed downwards to clear the way for special forces to land, Carlson said. "You turn that thing on, and I assure you people are going to stop what they're doing," he added.
The millimeter wave band lies in the electromagnetic spectrum between microwave and infrared. Its development has been slow because the technology was prohibitively expensive. Now that costs are declining, more applications are being explored, particularly in the communications and sensor fields.
Its proponents tout several potential uses in the defense and homeland security sectors, including enhanced satellite communications. Different frequencies in the band can have different applications. Its ability to penetrate walls and clothing has spawned proposals to use it at airports to detect weapons and in urban combat settings to seek out enemy combatants inside buildings. All this is possible because the human body emits small amounts of millimeter waves.
The active denial weapon is the vanguard in a suite of similar applications the Air Force is pursuing at its Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
High-powered microwaves that can disrupt or destroy communication equipment are in earlier stages of development. The laboratory also is working with the Department of Justice on high-powered microwave technology that could disable a vehicle. The vehicle stopper program could be used by the military to stop bomb-laden cars or by police to put premature ends to high-speed chases.
These systems require more power and must now be mounted on platforms larger than a Humvee, but can be "dialed up or down" to either increase or mitigate their effects, Carlson said. Power hurdles may be overcome by the time these weapons are deployed. They are about two years away from laboratory demonstrations with the potential to reach battlefields within 10 years, Carlson added.
Applications for non-lethal weapons, or ones than can disable people, vehicles or communications systems without completely destroying them, are increasing. "Our need is to provide the precise effects at the right time in the right place and minimize damage to other players in the battlefield," Carlson said.
Michael Vickers, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said such weapons could have a range of applications including crowd control, area isolation or denial, or in any situation "where you don't want to shoot folks."
Whether the active denial weapon will have any impact in the Iraq conflict is yet to be seen, said Vickers, who served in the Army Special Forces. Roadside bombs remain the number one problem, he said. "This is another tool in the arsenal, but it's not going to solve our Iraq problem," he added.
The use of non-lethal technologies on the battlefield, or to suppress civil unrest, is not without its critics. Nick Lewer, director for the Center for Conflict Resolution at the University of Bradford in Great Britain, said there are "more questions than answers" about the safety parameters.
There are concerns about the lack of medical research on what microwaves could do to a target's body in the long and short term. He asked if there are safety measures to prevent overexposure, whether there are adverse side effects and what happens to people who are incapacitated and can't move away from the beam. "More public information is required before it is deployed," he said at Jane's 8th Annual Less-Lethal Weapons Conference.