Weapons: Running Away From The Death Ray


January 11, 2012:  Over the last decade, U.S. efforts to deploy non-lethal weapons (NLW) have been, well, difficult. One of the most successful NLWs, the green laser, was basically a civilian device that troops found a military use for. The green laser is a pointing device designed to be "eye safe" (it won't permanently blind anyone who gets it in the eye). But the green laser would "dazzle" and temporarily blind anyone it was pointed at. This proved invaluable at checkpoints, where civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes tried to drive through despite orders to halt for inspection. Best of all, the green laser had a range of up to 2,000 meters.

The most problem plagued NLWs were the most impressive sounding ones. Take, for example, the microwave ADS, or Active Denial System (which transmits a searchlight sized beam of energy that makes people downrange feel like their skin is on fire). This system was never quite ready for prime time. It wasn't for lack of trying. Two years ago, an ADS system was sent to Afghanistan, but was eventually returned without being used. The proposed ROE (Rules of Engagement) for ADS were that anyone who kept coming after getting hit with microwave was assumed to have evil intent and could be killed. The microwave was believed to be particularly useful for terrorists who hide in crowds of women and children, using the human shields to get close enough to make an attack. This has been encountered in Somalia and Iraq. But not often enough in Afghanistan to give the one ADS there a chance to be used in action (as opposed to tests) for the first time. But the real reason for not using ADS is commanders unwilling to take the media heat for employing a "death ray" on "innocent civilians."

Last year it was decided to radically redesign ADS to make it smaller, more reliable and able to be used on the move. The Department of Defense has already spent nearly $60 million on ADS, so another $10 million or so seems a reasonable investment in something that almost works. ADS II is being designed to operate from moving aircraft, as well as moving ground vehicles.

The microwave powered ADS "radar dish" projects a "burn ray" that is about 1.3 meters (four feet) in diameter. It is effective in fog, smoke, and rain. When pointed at people and turned on it creates a burning sensation on the skin of its victims, causing them to want to leave the area, or at least greatly distracts them. The microwave weapon has a range of about 500 meters. ADS is carried on a hummer or Stryker, along with a machine-gun and other non-lethal weapons (like LRAD).

Deployment of ADS has already been delayed for years because of concerns about how non-lethal it really is. ADS has been fired, in tests, over 2,500 times. Many of these firings were against human volunteers, and the device performed as predicted, without any permanent damage. But generations of exposure to lurid science fiction descriptions of "death rays" has made the defense bureaucrats anxious over the negative public relations potential if something like ADS was actually used. From a publicity perspective, using more lethal "non-lethal-weapons" is preferable to deploying something safer, but that could be described, however incorrectly, as a "death ray."

In any event the cheaper, smaller, gentler and more flexible LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device, a "sound cannon") took ADS place in the American arsenal, at least for now. This is why systems like DSLA (a variant of LRAD that includes bright lights as well) have seen combat before ADS ever does.

Three years ago LRAD was quietly deployed to Iraq, where it was used with success. After that the U.S. Department of Defense developed a long range (up to 5 kilometers, compared to 300 meters) version of LRAD called DSLA (Distributed Sound and Light Array). DSLA also uses bright lights, in addition to delivered by a green laser. DSLA also uses a vidcam with zoom capability, so the operator can see distant targets for the system. The sound capabilities of DSLA diminish at longer ranges.

LRAD is basically a focused beam of sound, as is the longer range sound in DSLA. Originally, LRAD was designed to emit a very loud sound. Anyone whose head was touched by this beam heard a painfully loud sound. Anyone standing next to them heard nothing. But most of those hit by the beam promptly fled, or fell to the ground in pain. Permanent hearing loss is possible if the beam is kept on a person for several seconds, but given the effect the sound usually has on people (they move, quickly), it is unlikely to happen. LRAD works. U.S. troops have also noted that a beam of bright light also disorients people. So it was decided to create a longer range LRAD that could also, if the user felt some extra mojo was needed, apply bright lights (using the eye-safe laser). You aim LRAD or DSLA like a machine-gun.

LRAD has proven quite useful. It was used off Somalia by a cruise ship to repel pirates. Another merchant ship, however, found that LRAD just annoyed the pirates, who kept coming. This is why it's believed that the addition of lights, and longer range sound, would provide a device that would be difficult to overcome. While LRAD weighs 20 kg (45 pounds), DSLA weighs over twice as much. But, then, it does so much more.

Some U.S. Navy warships also carry LRAD, but not just to repel attacking suicide bombers, or whatever. No, the system was sold to the navy for a much gentler application. LRAD can also broadcast speech for up to 300 meters. The navy used LRAD to warn ships to get out of the way. This was needed in places like the crowded coastal waters of the northern Persian Gulf where the navy patrols. Many small fishing and cargo boats ply these waters and it's often hard to get the attention of the crews. With LRAD, you just aim it at a member of the crew and have an interpreter "speak" to the sailor. It was noted that the guy on the receiving end was sometimes terrified, even after he realized it was that large American destroyer that was talking to him. This apparently gave soldiers some ideas, for there were rumors among Iraqis of a devilish American weapon that makes people believe you are hearing voices in your head. It appears that some of the troops in Iraq used "spoken" (as opposed to "screeching") LRAD to mess with enemy fighters. Islamic terrorists tend to be superstitious and, of course, very religious. LRAD can put the "word of God" into their heads. If God, in the form of a voice that only you can hear, tells you to surrender or run away, what are you gonna do?

DSLA, with its longer range, makes it particularly popular for ships, or aircraft. Putting DSLA on a helicopter, with a stabilized mount (to adjust for any herky jerky movement of the chopper) allows for all sorts of useful mischief. Same deal on the ground, where the DSLA can cover a wider area and stay out of range of hostile gunfire as well. DSLA is intended to be a good crowd control device, delivering painful noise and blinding lights in a way that will scatter an angry mob.


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