Electronic Weapons: People Zapper Paralyzed By Fear


September 17, 2007: The U.S. Department of Defense has developed a second version of its microwave crowd control system (ADS, for Active Denial System). This one is called ADS 2, and is more reliable, and better suited to operating in hot climates. But there have been numerous delays in sending ADS to a combat zone. The politicians and generals are worried about the bad press they are certain they would receive if they used a "death ray" on civilians, or even armed hostiles.

ADS works by broadcasting microwaves at a frequency that makes people feel like their skin is on fire. Tests have shown that no one can stand it for more than about five seconds, before desperately seeking to get away from the area. After 13 years, and over nearly $100 million, ADS has solved numerous technical problems, but appears permanently stalled because of potential public relations difficulties.

All this is a common problem with "non-lethal weapons" (as things like ADS are called), which are not one hundred percent non-lethal. But people love to call them non-lethal, because such devices are intended to deal with violent individuals without killing them. A classic example of how this works is the Taser. A gun like device that fires two small barbs into an individual, and then zaps the victim with a non-lethal jolt of electricity, the Taser has been popular with police, who can more easily subdue violent, and often armed, individuals. Before Taser, the cops had a choice between dangerous (for everyone) hand-to-hand combat, or just firing their weapons and killing the guy. While the Taser has been a great success, for every thousand or so times you use it, the victim will die (either from a fall, another medical condition, use of drugs or whatever).

This has been fodder for the media, and put Taser users, and non-lethal-weapons developers, on the defensive. Because of that attitude, the Department of Defense went through more human testing to get a better idea of what kind of accidental deaths the ADS could cause. They concluded that most common cause of ADS related fatalities would be from falls, or getting trampled, as victims fled the ADS microwave ray. While potential ADS users know, from combat experience, that ADS would cause far fewer fatalities than existing methods (firepower), they also know that any fatalities from ADS use would generate bad press. That could be a career ending event. When you have one dead body, you can't use the fact that you don't have ten, or a hundred, as a defense.

The war on terror has made ADS more acceptable for some situations, as it could be used to guard sensitive targets. This would include targets thought vulnerable to suicide bomber attack, like ports, nuclear power plants or public buildings. ADS can be effective several hundred meters away, more than enough range to stop suspected suicide bombers who have ignored all other warnings. Navy ships in ports vulnerable to terrorist activity could also use ADS. However, each ADS system costs about four million dollars, so they won't be passed out like riot shields and tear gas grenades.

In 2004, it was thought that ADS could enter service in 2005, but then it was delayed for two more years of testing and lawyer-proofing. That allowed time for the development of ADS 2. However, if the right emergency arose, ADS could be flown out right away. Current thinking is that it might be better if ADS was used on some rioting Americans first, before using it a lot on foreigners. At the moment, however, there's a real shortage of nasty mobs in the United States. In the meantime, ADS cowers in the shadows, fearful and unused because of indignant lawyers and politicians, and journalists ready to exploit it for all its worth.

Not willing to abandon its product, the manufacturer, Raytheon, is offering ADS to civilian users (police and other organizations with security needs) under the name, "Silent Guardian." At the moment, ADS appears to be one of those technologies that is the next big thing, and always will be.


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