Can we have our pain ray now, please?Yesterday, Iraqi insurgents got a big wish fulfilled, when an American military helicopter firing into a crowd of civilians, killing a dozen or more.Some say the Iraqis, who were looting an abandoned Bradley Fighting Vehicle, fired on the copter first. Some say otherwise. It doesn't matter, really; either way, the U.S. winds up looking more brutal and less legitimate -- in Iraq eyes.But what choice did the American gunner have? When U.S. soldiers are faced with a hostile crowd, they only have, broadly speaking, two options for breaking it up: the bullhorn or the machine gun. Words or bullets. Deadly force, or no force at all.What's need instead is a weapon that falls somewhere in between. That shoots to hurt, not to kill. That drives away looters, without driving up casualty counts.A microwave-like pain ray, let's say.Fortunately, such a weapon is already deep into development. It's called the Active Denial System, or ADS. And, by firing electro-magnetic waves that penetrate just a 64th of inch beneath the skin, ADS creates a burning sensation that tends to make people run the other way, fast.A Humvee-mounted ADS prototype is expected to be ready by the end of the year, with budget decisions made in 2005.But, whether ADS is accepted or not, attitudes about non-lethal weapons have to change. Right now, the Pentagon's division devoted to such weapons gets about $44 million a year out of a $400 billion budget. That's to support the development of new weapons, and not build up stockpiles of existing ones, like stun grenades and rubber-ball-packed claymores.These weapons often stay in warehouses, rather than get used in the field, however. As a combat zone grows increasingly hostile, commanders often become reluctant to use the weapons. It's like bringing a knife to a gun fight, they argue.But that kind of attitude can play right into the hands of insurgents, generating the kind of ugly reports we are all reading today. Sometimes, in the middle of a gun fight, a knife is exactly what's needed.THERE'S MORE: "You seem to assume that weapons such as the microwave device you describe will be used only for the purposes intended, and that their effects will generally be less harmful than more directly lethal devices," writes World Without Secrets author Richard Hunter.
But what happens if the people faced with such a weapon can't just run away? What happens if they're trapped in a crowd, and the crowd can't move? How much pain must that crowd endure? How long can any member of the crowd be exposed to that weapon before his or her skin -- or their eyes -- simply cook off?What happens if the devices are used deliberately in a manner designed to cause maximum harm -- say, by training the device on prisoners trapped in prison cells until they literally go mad with pain?What happens if the system operator turns up the power? A little bit works well, why not try a lot?What happens if the scientists didn't test the devices thoroughly, and they turn out to render anyone touched by them blind, or impotent, or sterile?I need a lot of convincing before I believe that weapons designed expressly to cause pain are humane.Fair points, all. A system like Active Denial certainly would have the potential for abuse. But at least there would be the possibility of using the weapon non-lethally -- a possibility which doesn't really exist today with an M-16.AND MORE: "Killing is in our intentions, not our weapons," says Defense Tech reader JMW. When faced with an adversary, "the individual soldier has to decide whether to kill or to take a prisoner. This has nothing to do with armament." Aim a pistol at the knees, and it's just about as non-lethal as a pain ray.
There are NO "nonlethal" weapons when in the hands of military personnel. Weapons which disable or confuse enemy troops are those used to prepare subsequent removal of threats by lethal force. This was the classical use of poison gas during WWI and in the Iran-Iraq War. When nonlethal arms are available, one prevents enemy weapon use nonlethally, and then applies the lethal force. Of course, whatever the weaponry, if capture is feasible, it will be carried out; it doesn't matter whether nonlethal alternatives are available -- and they load down our combatants with ineffective equipment.This differs from police use, where the objective is law enforcement, not killing, threat removal, or capture of facilities (we hope).AND MORE: "Whatever happened to good old-fashioned tear gas?" asks Defense Tech reader RR. A few rounds of tear gas into a crowd does a great job of changing the crowd's priorities. Safe, cheap, and effective."