The Big Hurt

Pentagon scientists push the pain threshold with nonlethal weapons

| November / December 2005

This might make your skin boil. Literally. The Pentagon has a new weapon that uses a 95-gigahertz microwave beam to rapidly heat skin and cause an unbearable burning sensation that will send rioters fleeing from its path within five seconds.

The perk of the Active Denial System (ADS) is that it won't cause physical damage. That is, if rioters make sure to empty their pockets before they take to the streets. New Scientist (July 23, 2005) reports that during tests of the device in 2003 and 2004 at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, volunteers were told to remove eyeglasses and contact lenses, and they were checked for coins, keys, and metal objects that could create dangerous 'hot spots' when the beam came in contact with them.

The ADS gadget is part of a 'nonlethal' arsenal the Department of Defense has been developing. The biological weapons watchdog group the Sunshine Project, with the help of the Freedom of Information Act, has been working to expose the project.

Other big guns in the Pentagon's new weapons lineup include Pulsed Energy Projectiles (PEPs). The idea is to create a kind of invisible punch by emitting a laser pulse from over a mile away. Like the ADS, the device is supposed to trigger unbearable pain but leave no trace.

All of this has some human rights advocates worried about the weapons' potential as torture tools, while others question the claim that specific devices won't cause lasting damage. 'Even if the use of temporary severe pain can be justified as a restraining measure, which I do not believe it can, the long-term physical and psychological effects are unknown,' Andrew Rice, a pain medicine consultant at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, told New Scientist (March 2, 2005).

These concerns notwithstanding, the Pentagon hopes to be using PEPs by 2007 and is moving ahead with plans to deploy ADS atop vehicles in Iraq by next year.

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