Good-bye nasty tear gas. So long risky rubber bullets. Welcome
to the wonderful world of electromagnetic weaponry. In March, the
PR-conscious Pentagon proudly unveiled what is supposed to be the
perfect nonlethal crowd control device--a high-powered energy beam
that can disperse an unruly mob without killing, maiming or harming
anyone. Military brass are touting it as the biggest breakthrough
in war technology since the nuclear bomb.
Known officially as a "Vehicle-Mounted Active Denial System," this
new weapon is said to be more humane and more effective than other
methods of controlling a large crowd or stopping aggressive intruders
dead in their tracks. Here's how it works. A special transmitter
fires two-second bursts of focused microwave energy that causes
a burning sensation on the skin of people up to 700 yards away.
But no one gets fried and no telltale burn marks linger on the body
because the beam only penetrates just beneath the skin's surface
at a depth of 1/64th of an inch. Targets of this concentrated electromagnetic
pulse briefly experience intense pain and confusion. "It's safe,
absolutely safe," said Col. George Fenton, who demonstrated the
new gadget in March at the Pentagon's nonlethal weapons center in
Quantico, Virginia. "You walk out of the beam and the pain goes
away. There are no lasting effects."
The actual zapper, which looks something like a backyard satellite
dish mounted on top of an armored car, is still in the experimental
phase. Handheld and aircraft-mounted applications are also on the
Thus far, 10 years of research and $40 million have been devoted
to this project, which critics have likened to a militarized version
of a microwave oven. Developed by the Raytheon Corporation and several
other Defense Department contractors, it is currently being field-tested
on soldiers at the Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico. But it
is not expected to be ready for deployment by troops for at least
Zap-happy Pentagon strategists envision using the "Active Denial
System" in various operational settings where a small number of
American troops or military police might be confronted by a horde
of angry civilians. Border patrols, "peacekeeping" missions, urban
riots and domestic disturbances have been flagged as situations
in which such a device could prove handy. Best of all, it won't
result in bloody television images of people shot and mutilated
by conventional arms.
But before you start feeling warm and fuzzy all over at the prospect
of a benign alternative to guns and bombs, consider the fact that
past attempts by the U.S. military to create so-called nonlethal
weapons have resulted in some monumental fiascos. During the late
'50s, Major Gen. William Creasy, chief officer of the U.S. Army
Chemical Corps, waxed enthusiastic about a new kind of "psychochemical"
weapon that would revolutionize combat. He imagined aircraft swooping
down over enemy territory, releasing clouds of hallucinogenic "madness
gas" that would disorient people and dissolve their will to resist.
According to Creasy, a nonlethal incapacitating agent such as LSD
could subdue a foe without inflicting permanent injury.
Testifying before Congress, Creasy maintained that psychochemical
warfare was not only feasible but tactically advantageous for certain
difficult operations, such as dislodging enemy soldiers from a city
inhabited by an otherwise friendly population--a busy industrial
center, for example, with numerous museums and cultural landmarks.
Why blow everything to smithereens with an old-fashioned artillery
barrage if you can spike the city's water supply with LSD or disseminate
an aerosol hallucinogen? Those under the spell of madness gas would
become helplessly giddy, spaced-out, and incapable of fighting back
while U.S. troops established themselves on once-forbidden turf.
Victory would be a foregone conclusion. Just blow their minds, move
in and take over.