I was skeptical, when I first heard about the idea of using lasers and man-made lightning to detonate explosives at a distance. Not only did the technology sound fantastic. But the company pushing the real-life ray gun, Tucscon's Ionatron Inc., seemed so damn squirrely -- long on press releases and shady political connections, short on specifics about how their technology really worked. And that's before you start digging into the questionable stock deals and patent violations. So I wrote Ionatron off for while, despite more and more headlines about the firm and its "Joint IED Neutralizer" -- JIN, for short.Then, over the summer, I got a call from an Army general who had seen the thing in action. By using femtosecond lasers light pulses that last less than a ten-trillionth of a second JIN could carve conductive channels of ionized oxygen in the air. Through these XXXX-foot channels, Ionatron's blaster sent man-made lighting bolts. And they actually seem to work at neutralizing bombs. "We understand the physics of what we're trying to do. Now we're just working on the engineering," the general told me. "I think we're going to solve that problem -- and this is just a guess -- in 12 months, maybe 18."It turns out the general wasn't the only one who was impressed. Last year, "then-deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz recommended investing $30 million in research and sending prototypes to Iraq for testing," the L.A. Times reports. Ionatron CEO Tom Dearmin told eDefense that the first of 12 units would be in Iraq by the end of July."But 10 months later and after a prototype destroyed about 90% of the IEDs laid in its path during a battery of tests not a single JIN has been shipped to Iraq," the Times notes. "To many in the military, the delay in deploying the vehicles, which resemble souped-up, armor-plated golf carts, is a case study in the Pentagon's inability to bypass cumbersome peacetime procedures to meet the urgent demands of troops in the field."
"The decision has been made that it's not yet mature enough," said Army Brig. Gen. Dan Allyn, deputy director of... the Joint IED Defeat Organization. Iraq is "not the place to be testing unproven technology."But the Marine Corps believes otherwise and recently decided to circumvent the testing schedule and send JIN units to Al Anbar province in western Iraq... Based on their performance, Marine commanders said, they hope the device can eventually be used throughout Iraq.Just about every arm of the Defense Department that deals with R&D has been struggling to figure out when to send new technologies to the field. Wait too long, and you're robbing troops of a valuable tool. Field a gadget too quickly, the un-worked-out kinks can ruin its reputation in the military for a while. Troops can even get hurt, relying on an unstable machine.Usually, the Pentagon errs on the side of caution. Some of the most valuable tools in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the Predator drone, the Stryker armored vehicle -- were deemed not ready for prime time by Defense Department testers.But despite "thousands of little items found wrong with the Stryker," it was fielded anyway, Army Test and Evaluation Command chief Major General James Myles told me recently. The problems were small and fixable enough that the Stryker was sent out "four or five years" earlier than what the old regulations would've required. So what if the brakes don't work in the extreme cold? "We can't wait for a perfect solution to get a weapon to the field."The Times pairs the JIN hold-up with the "military's failure to provide sufficient body armor and adequate armor for transport vehicles." But that's not quite right. There's a big difference between getting proven life-savers to a combat zone, and figuring out when something brand new is good enough to be deployed. That goes double for ray guns.UPDATE 03/21/06 9:38 AM: This post, and some of the comments to it, have been modified in the interest of operational security.