Monday, September 03, 2007

Ray Guns Revisited

Back in February, I did a two-part series on non-lethal weapons. The first piece was about a system whose formal name is the Active Denial System. Despite the fact that the name sounds more like what politicians do when they get in trouble, the system in question is a rather elegant technical achievement. It consists of a microwave generator probably similar in principle to your microwave oven. Only instead of making waves that are about five inches long (the standard microwave-oven wavelength), these waves are only about a tenth of an inch long. If you're dealing with water-bearing substances such as potroasts or people, it turns out the depth of penetration of microwaves relates to the wavelength. So while you can cook a whole potroast that's several inches thick in your microwave, these shorter microwaves used by the Active Denial System only penetrate 1/64 of an inch into human skin. But if you pack about a kilowatt or more of short-wavelength power over an area of only a few square yards, the heat generated in that thin layer of skin with only a two-second exposure goes up to 130 degrees F. And that's uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that the Air Force scientists who developed the thing believe it will be a sure-fire (so to speak) way to disperse unruly crowds. Better than tear gas, because it leaves no residue or long-lasting health effects (they believe). And better than rubber bullets or any of the other accepted non-lethal technologies in present use.

Well, that's the idea, anyway. But as with so many technical solutions that appeal to technologists, the wider world raises objections that the scientists maybe didn't consider. According to a recent Associated Press report by Richard Lardner, the Active Denial System has run afoul of bureaucratic hesitation. After the first major conflict in Fallujah between insurgents and U. S. troops in 2003, the head of the Air Force Space Command, Gene McCall, sent an urgent email to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, saying that the Active Denial System could take care of just such problems. In 2006, Marine Corps Major General Robert Neller requested procurement of eight commercialized versions of the same system, called Silent Guardians. But Col. Kirk Hymes, chief of the Defense Department's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, says that one reason the system hasn't been adopted for field use is because of fears that it might be perceived as a form of torture, raising specters of Abu Ghraib. There are also outfits such as Human Rights Watch that don't want to see the system deployed. They complain that the testing and legal reviews on which the Pentagon bases its claims that the system is legal under international law and medically harmless, are classified and can't be independently verified.

When I first heard about this system, I was tickled technically. and less thrilled from an ethical point of view. I honestly don't know if it would be a good idea to use this thing in a real battle or not. Given (a big given, in the case of many readers) that we ought to be fighting in Iraq in the first place, my suspicion is that the thing would be helpful up to a point. The point would be when the target population figures out a way to defend themselves against the device. I won't give aid and comfort to the enemy by spilling beans right here, but it turns out that an item that would provide pretty certain defense against the system is available in any U. S. supermarket. (In Iraq, it might not be so easy to come by.) And there's the expense factor, which nobody in the know wants to discuss. If it was as inexpensive as a Humvee with chrome trim, you can bet they'd be bragging about it. As I mentioned in my February column, these things are probably not cheap at all—a lot more costly than a conventional weapon of comparable size. But every new piece of hardware is expensive until you start making lots of them and get economies of scale.

Independently of the questions about the weapon's safety, cost, and so on, what bothers me more than anything about this whole episode is the organizational schizophrenia it reveals. Here one part of the Defense Department has been spending $60 million over twelve years to develop a potentially promising new weapon, and wants to see it used. And some commanders are eager to try it. But some other part of the Pentagon successfully throws roadblocks up and says, "Well, not yet, not quite, we're not sure. . . ." Now even in well-run organizations you get different parts running off in different directions, and stopping a thing that's gone on too long is sometimes the right thing to do. But it does seem to me that if there were a more unified spirit—I don't know what other word to use—in the military establishment today, either the project would have been rejected at the outset, at a savings of millions of dollars, or else everybody would have been in favor of it from the start and it would be out there today zapping terrorists and doing whatever other damage it can do. There's an adage that says something like, "husbanded bullets are no bullets at all." Meaning, roughly, if you go into a battle worried more about how many bullets you have than about winning, you're likely both to run out of bullets, and lose. The abstract ethical question about the Active Denial System is one that we simply lack enough information to decide, at least in public. But what is very plain is that the internal squabbling that the system has created, is a sign of a deeper malaise within the military that can do no good at all.

Sources: My previous blog on this subject appeared on Feb. 6, 2007. The AP story on the Active Denial System by Richard Lardner ran in the Austin American-Statesman for Sept. 2, 2007.

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