There’s an upswing in the so-called non-lethal weapon trend which has led, as of late, to the adoption of the Police Force Triple Defender and The Alternative, both of which we’ve covered here on TFB. The Police Force Triple Defender is a triple-incapacitation system capable of emitting the acidic burn of pepper spray, the crackling voltage of a stun gun, or the disorientation of a strobe. The Alternative could easily be described as a ball-peen hammer condom for your gun; it’s a ball that snaps over your gun’s muzzle. Said ball captures the first fired bullet, turning the ball into what would hopefully be a non-lethal, but incredibly painful, projectile, making your first shot compelling but not deadly. Now we have another one, and while it isn’t brand new in design the idea of bringing it to law enforcement use is new. Enter The Active Denial System.
Yes, the name makes it sound as though we’re kidding, but it really is named The Active Denial System (ADS). Described as a non-lethal directed energy weapon, the ADS was designed by the military, for the military. Within the service it’s usually referred to as the “heat ray” because that’s what it is: a giant heat ray. It fires a 95 GHz wave (3.2mm wavelength) at targets, heating the surface to unbearable temperatures. And while it works through dielectric heating along the same principles as a microwave, the military is quick to say it is not a microwave and does not create radiation of any sort. The ADS penetrates to 0.4mm; microwaves penetrate to a depth of 17mm, and while those numbers alone do not substantiate claims the system doesn’t have a microwave-like effect, rather limited studies to date show the system does indeed remain on the surface as opposed to producing an internal cooking effect. The system’s range has been tested at 1000 meters, which is about as long as seven football fields.
Human testing thus far has been somewhat limited. To date there have been under 1000 human test subjects, one of whom was Kelley Hughes, a civilian military employee who volunteered for the honor of being crisped like bacon. According to Hughes the sensation is “intolerable” and she “felt heat ramping up quickly.” Hughes only made it a matter of seconds before succumbing to the desire to get as far away from the beam as possible. Understandable considering testing has shown the ADS produces the desired repellant effect at 111 degrees Fahrenheit, moving on to generate first-degree burns at 124 degrees Fahrenheit and second-degree burns at 136 degrees Fahrenheit. Blistering occurred in 0.1% of human test subjects; most are quick to run away since stepping out of range of the beam causes immediate relief from what one tester described as being “on fire.”
The DoD worked on this design from 2002 to 2007 with the first fully-functional system being demonstrated at Moody AFB in January of 2007. By 2010 the ADS had been deployed to Afghanistan, a tour cut short by what appear to have been climate-related operational difficulties. Of course, some say the reason the ADS was not once fired against the enemy was due to concern over its being “cruel” and concerns it would give insurgents ammunition for their propaganda machine against Americans (those same talking heads referred to the system as a “disturbing trend” in weaponry, failing to see the enormous irony of their own statements). But the military was not to be dissuaded; in 2011 work began on a more portable version of the ADS since previous incarnations had been cumbersome vehicle-mounted weapons. In 2013 the Marines and Army used it to turn up the heat on modern-day pirates, halting enemy attempts to board ships. Today the word is the ADS is being made significantly smaller; who knows, maybe we’ll soon have hand-held heat ray guns a la H.G. Wells’ 1898 thriller, War of the Worlds (if your only knowledge of Wells’ work is the more recent slop created starring Tom Cruise, you really are missing out and should check out the classic 1953 movie at the very least if not the book itself).
So, are non-lethal weapons the wave of the future? Many are pushing for it, and inventors and designers are working overtime to make it reality. Perhaps someday soon you’ll be able to fire your microwave in the heat of the moment (all puns intended). Or perhaps the facts will get in the way and bring with them a crowd of naysayers: dangerous side effects feared as a result of hits from an ADS include cancer, cornea damage (do not look into the light), birth defects, blisters, and hypertrophic or keloid scarring. Although testing so far hasn’t shown any reason for concern beyond a few pea-sized blisters, use has not been extensive enough or long-term enough to be truly confident in the results one way or another.
Frankly, when one side or the other gets amped up over non-lethal weapon possibilities I cannot help but flash back to the adrenaline-fueled charges of the Moro Warriors during the American-Philippine War. Those enemy combatants, such as they were, were armed mostly with wooden swords and implements and facing guns like the .38 Long Colt wielded by the U.S. Cavalry, and when they were shot they simply kept coming. Fast-forward to current-day combat; I’ve heard more than one story from Grunts and SF operators of the way insurgents have kept fighting after being shot by FMJ 5.56. It follows, logically, if men riding on a high of either adrenaline or the contents of the poppy fields can brush off the effects of bullets penetrating their bodies to carry out attacks, a little heat – albeit blistering, painful heat – isn’t going to stop them, either. There’s a reason it’s called “force” and not “suggestion” after all. Conflicts are not resolved by offerings of daisies (now, daisy cutters…), they’re resolved with firepower.
So while it’s true non-lethal weapons may have their place in crowd control during riots such as those recently seen in Ferguson, it seems wise to remember the proper place of such weaponry. It also seems wise to remember the tendencies of human error and flat-out stupidity. It’s easy to be torn about weapons systems such as these, because while there are certainly some applications, they’re rife with the possibility of problems, and if one was to take a slightly cynical viewpoint, one could easily see the surge in non-lethal weapons as a work-around towards another goal. If one was to really reach, the proliferation of non-lethal methods could also easily translate to even more unwanted changes in our ROE. Whereas today a soldier may be ordered not to shoot unless the enemy is actively engaging him at that very moment, tomorrow there could be even more: stun the enemy in XYZ scenario, heat him up in ABC, and so on. Seem far-fetched? Our grandfathers battling through World War II would be shocked to be dropped into Afghanistan today and told they’re not allowed to shoot a known terrorist because he hid his AK-47 behind the rock two inches to his left (despite knowing unequivocally said terrorist is going to grab said rifle and take out soldiers at the first opportunity).
General George Patton, Jr., said it best when he stated “May God have mercy upon my enemies, because I will not.” What do you think, are non-lethal weapons the wave of the future, or are they a sign of an entire laundry list worth of problems?