SciTech

How Things Work: Military pain beam

This Active-Denial System is fully functional and mobile. Tests have already been performed and show that subjects cannot usually last more than three seconds in the so-called “pain beam.” (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) This Active-Denial System is fully functional and mobile. Tests have already been performed and show that subjects cannot usually last more than three seconds in the so-called “pain beam.” (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) Active-Denial Systems can be attached to military vehicles, like the Humvee. This technology will be used primarily for crowd control. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) Active-Denial Systems can be attached to military vehicles, like the Humvee. This technology will be used primarily for crowd control. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) A smaller version of the Active-Denial System is used for testing. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) A smaller version of the Active-Denial System is used for testing. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The evolution of war, by necessity, encouraged the advancement of technology. However, society has also changed — weapons in the past were created to kill and maim more effectively, but weapons of the future will have a more humane side.

It might seem like a paradox — a humane weapon — but researchers are looking to create weapons that will be able to subdue enemies effectively without causing permanent physical harm.
One such weapon being developed is a kind of military pain beam that will hopefully reduce civilian casualties in future conflicts. This has already been tested on subjects and shown to be effective.

Pain is an unpleasant but necessary sensation that notifies the body of harm. It is a natural response that allows an organism to know when damage is occuring so that it may alter its behavior to reduce further damage. People born with the inability to feel pain may bite their own tongues constantly or break their arms and not realize it. The pain beam will exploit the body’s natural response to pain, which is to move away from the source.

The more formal term for the military pain beam is an Active-Denial System, or ADS. It works by exploiting pain receptors in human skin. According to www.howstuffworks.com, a beam of electromagnetic energy is sent out from something that looks like a satellite dish. An article on www.wired.com states that the beam is comprised of millimeter waves, which have wavelengths between X-rays and microwaves.

The beam moves at the speed of light — instantaneously compared to modern weapons like bullets, missiles, or bombs — and acts over great distances. The actual distance is classified information, although it is known to work at a distance of 500 meters. The energy beam heats the skin of anyone in the path of the beam, and the skin absorbs most of the emitted radiation. This causes a feeling of intense burning. The beam will not be able to penetrate the skin far enough to damage internal organs. Experts note that some activities like tanning will have a more damaging effect to the body in the long run than an ADS. However, the long-term effects have not been extensively studied.

According to www.bbc.co.uk, a Reuters journalist volunteered to be shot by the beam. He described the effect “as similar to a blast from a very hot oven — too painful to bear without diving for cover.”

Because the ADS looks like a satellite dish, it can be mounted on top of military vehicles, including ships and planes. This will allow for mobility of the ADS, an important feature for any weapon.
The military currently envisions the major use of the ADS as crowd control. According to www.wired.com, test subjects reached their pain thresholds in three seconds, and the site also noted that none of the subjects managed to stay in the beam for more than five seconds. This would be enough to make any crowd scatter.

The beam can penetrate through many objects, but not those made of stone or metal. This has prompted some to believe that wearing a metal suit may help protect soldiers against this beam. The United States Air Force has tested aluminum clothing, but it is only when absolutely no part of the body is exposed that ADS is ineffective.

While ADS may seem like a welcome technology to the military, human rights activists have concerns over the legitimacy of the claims concerning the technology’s safety. The long-term health effects have not been fully studied, and in some mock situations in which ADS was tested, some subjects emerged with burns and blisters. A case of second-degree burns was reported in one instance. In addition, according to www.boston.com, having a weapon marked as non-lethal might prompt troops to use the weapon inappropriately, and in intense battle situations they might become forgetful of proper procedure. This may mean pointing the beam at a crowd of people for more time than is necessary or for more time than testing has shown to be safe.

ADS is not the only technology being developed for non-lethal usage. Another type of device emits a loud, disorienting noise that can be used for crowd control. Researchers have also considered using high-tech stinkbombs and flashbang grenades — grenades that emit a bright light upon explosion — to remove people from a certain area.

Wartime will always prompt the development of weapons. It is fortunate that researchers are actively promoting the development of non-lethal weapons.