If there’s one thing journalists love more than getting the scoop, it’s being a Guinea pig for a hot story. And as of last week, Wired’s military reporter Spencer Ackerman is one of the few journalists that can brag about getting blasted with the military’s “heat ray.”
Technically named the Active Denial System, the non-lethal weapon uses a millimeter radio wave beam to zap targets with a signal frequency that’s just hot enough to inflict serious pain, but without causing physical damage. Military researchers have verified this by testing the weapon about 11,000 times, with only two people suffering burn-related injuries. It’s precisely that sweet spot of being a non-lethal yet powerful deterrent that the military has spent the last 15 years and about 150 million dollars developing it.
Besides filming the demonstration, Ackerman describes his experience of getting hit (twice!) by what some have dubbed the Pain Ray:
When the signal goes out over radio to shoot me, there’s no warning — no flash, no smell, no sound, no round. Suddenly my chest and neck feel like they’ve been exposed to a blast furnace, with a sting thrown in for good measure. I’m getting blasted with 12 joules of energy per square centimeter, in a fairly concentrated blast diameter. I last maybe two seconds of curiosity before my body takes the controls and yanks me out of the way of the beam.
I’m feeling the heat for a good 10 seconds afterward. Then, like a genius, I go back for seconds. (Some friends from al-Jazeera wanted to film me — or so they said.) If I was, say, an Afghan at the gates of a Forward Operating Base who seemed indifferent to a flash-grilling, the guards would probably have used their regular and very lethal carbines to light me up. Instead, I decide that I don’t really want thirds.
From the looks of it, the ray works quite well. So why, after a decade and a half, isn’t it quite ready for prime time? Ackerman points out that there are still quite a few problematic issues. Here’s a brief summary of the technical hurdles that’s kept such a useful weapon in the proverbial test garage:
- While the millimeter waves only penetrate the skin about 1/64th of an inch, it requires a lot more energy than a microwave.
- Like laser weapons, the ray’s potency is sensitive to immediate environmental conditions. Rain, snow and dust can severely alter it’s “attenuation.”
- Firing up the weapon takes upwards of 16 hours (and you thought booting up your computer took a long time). This means the weapon would need to be kept on standby in order to be called into duty at a moment’s notice. This also means, as it now stands, the device is real gas guzzler.
And the one time military officials tried dispatching the heat ray to Afghanistan, former army commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal reneged due to — of all things — the potential for bad PR. He feared the Taliban would accuse the armed forced of “microwaving Afghans, giving them cancer, making them sterile, and so forth,” according to Ackerman’s report.
While researchers deny the weapon is capable of doing any of that, there are also critics who charge that the safety presets can be accidentally or intentionally overridden. They’ve also argued that water cannons are already sufficient enough to squeal rioters.
Even so, the non-lethal weapons unit remains committed to the project. And although there are a laundry’s list of challenges, the potential for designing the perfect non-lethal weapon may, in the end, be worth all the trouble.
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