Sweeping Stun Guns to Target Crowds
Pentagon Prepares to Use 'Sonic Warfare'

October 4, 2004

Set to Stun," is no longer a line from Star Trek. These weapons are now being prepared for use on the streets of America.
Sweeping Stun Guns to Target Crowds
David Hambling / New Scientist

LONDON (June 16, 2004) -- Weapons that can incapacitate crowds of people by sweeping a lightning-like beam of electricity across them are being readied for sale to military and police forces in the US and Europe. At present, commercial stun guns target one person at a time, and work only at close quarters. The new breed of non-lethal weapons can be used on many people at once and operate over far greater distances.

But human rights groups are appalled by the fact that no independent safety tests have been carried out, and by their potential for indiscriminate use. The weapons are designed to address the perceived shortcomings of the Taser, the electric-shock gun already used by 4000 police departments in the US and undergoing trials with some police forces in the UK.

It hits the victim with two darts that trail current-carrying wires, which limit its range to a maximum of seven metres (see graphic). As a single shot, short-range weapon, the Taser is of little use in crowd control. And Tasers have no effect on vehicles.

The 'Wireless' Taser Can Incapacitate Entire Crowds
These limitations are beginning to be overcome. Engineers working for the US Department of Defense's research division, DARPA, and defense companies in Europe have been working out how to create an electrically conductive path between a gun and a target without using wires. A weapon under development by Rheinmetall, based in Dorf, Germany, creates a conducting channel by using a small explosive charge to squirt a stream of tiny conductive fibers through the air at the victim (New Scientist print edition, 24 May 2003).

Meanwhile, Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems (XADS), based in Anderson, Indiana, will be one of the first companies to market another type of wireless weapon. Instead of using fibers, the $9000 Close Quarters Shock Rifle projects an ionized gas, or plasma, towards the target, producing a conducting channel. It will also interfere with electronic ignition systems and stop vehicles. "We will be able to fire a stream of electricity like water out of a hose at one or many targets in a single sweep," claims XADS president Peter Bitar.

The gun has been designed for the US Marine Corps to use for crowd control and security purposes and is due out in 2005. It is based on early, unwieldy technology and has a range of only three metres, but an operator can debilitate multiple targets by sweeping it across them for "as long as there is an input power source," says Bitar.

An Electro-charged Rainstorm
XADS is also planning a more advanced weapon which it hopes will have a range of 100 metres or more. Instead of firing ionized gas, it will probably use a powerful laser to ionize the air itself. The idea has been around for decades, says LaVerne Schlie, a laser expert at the US Air Force Research Lab in Kirtland, New Mexico. It has only become practical with advances in high-power solid-state lasers. "Before, it took a laser about the size of two trucks," says Schlie. "Now we can do it with something that fits on a tabletop."

The laser pulse must be very intense, but can be brief. So the makers of the weapons plan to use a UV laser to fire a 5-joule pulse lasting just 0.4 picoseconds -- equating to a momentary power of more than 10 million megawatts. This intense pulse -- which is said not to harm the eyes -- ionizes the air, producing long, thread-like filaments of glowing plasma that can be sustained by repeating the pulse every few milliseconds. This plasma channel is then used to deliver a shock to the victims similar to a Taser's 50,000-volt, 26-watt shock.

HSV Technologies of San Diego, California is also working on stun and vehicle-stopping shock weapons with ranges of over 100 meters. And another company, Ionatron of Tuscon, Arizona, is due to supply a prototype wireless vehicle-mounted weapon to the US Department of Defense by the end of 2004.

But the advent of wireless stun weapons has horrified human rights groups. Robin Coupland of the Red Cross says they risk becoming a new instrument of torture. And Brian Wood of Amnesty International says the long-range stun guns could "inflict pain and other suffering on innocent bystanders".

And there are safety concerns. Of the 30,000 times US police officers have fired Tasers, in 40 instances people stunned by them later died. The deaths have been attributed to factors such as overdoses of drugs and alcohol, or fighting with officers, rather than the electric shock. In a statement, Taser International chief Rick Smith said: "In every single case the medical examiner has attributed the direct cause of death to causes other than the Taser." Amnesty is not convinced, however, and wants an independent study of the effects of all existing and emerging electric-shock weapons.


In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is posted without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes

American Technology Corp VP Carl Gruenier shows off the "Silent Scream" device. Now deployed for use in Iraq. Iraqi civilians will be used as guinea pigs for testing the device.
Pentagon Prepares to Use 'Sonic Warfare'
William M. Arkin / Los Angeles Times

The Pentagon's Secret Scream Sonic devices can inflict pain or even permanent deafness. Despite legal and moral concerns, they are being deployed in Iraq
as part of a human experiment in hopes of "creating a greater demand" for more "non-lethal" weapons in the future.
If this weapon can be used in Baghdad,
it can be used against protestors in the US.

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. (March 7, 2004) -- Marines arriving in Iraq this month as part of a massive troop rotation will bring with them a high-tech weapon never before used in combat -- or in peacekeeping. The device is a powerful megaphone the size of a satellite dish that can deliver recorded warnings in Arabic and, on command, emit a piercing tone so excruciating to humans, its boosters say, that it causes crowds to disperse, clears buildings and repels intruders.

"[For] most people, even if they plug their ears, [the device] will produce the equivalent of an instant migraine," says Woody Norris, chairman of American Technology Corp., the San Diego firm that produces the weapon. "It will knock [some people] on their knees."

American Technology says its new product "is designed to determine intent, change behavior and support various rules of engagement." The company is careful in its public relations not to refer to the megaphone as a weapon, or to dwell on the debilitating pain American forces will be able to deliver with it. The military has been equally reticent on the subject.

And that's a problem. The new sound weapon might, in some scenarios, save lives. It might provide a good alternative to lethal force in riot situations, as its proponents assert. But the US is making a huge mistake by trying to quietly deploy a new pain-inducing weapon without first airing all of the legal, policy and human rights issues associated with it.

'A Weapon Unlike Any Other' Raises Legal, Moral Concerns
This is a weapon unlike any other used by the military, and it is certain to provoke public outcry and the conspiracy theories that often greet new US military technology.

If the military feels that its new-style weaponry brings something important to the battlefield, and if testing has shown it to be safe, then why not make our reasoning -- and research -- transparent to the world?

Nonlethal weapons have been promoted by a small circle of boosters for nearly 15 years as something increasingly necessary for the US military in its growing peacekeeping, urban-combat and force-protection missions. Some of the weaponry championed by the group, like rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades and, more recently, electromuscular disruptive devices, or Tasers, has already been deployed.

But the more exotic weapons -- including acoustic, laser, and high-powered microwave devices -- have not until now been fielded, held up by legal and ethical questions. Despite intense lobbying, over the years the Pentagon leadership has been skeptical of such "wonder weapons."

In 1995, then-Secretary of Defense William Perry decided to ban Pentagon development of non-lethal laser weapons intended to permanently blind. His decision led to a subsequent international ban.

So shouldn't we have a similar discussion about high-intensity sound, which can cause permanent hearing loss or even cellular damage?

The new megaphone being deployed to Iraq can operate at 145 decibels at 300 yards, according to American Technology, well above the normal threshold for pain.

Once Again, the Problem of 'Collateral Damage'
The company posits a scenario in which Al Qaeda terrorists would run screaming from caves after being subjected to a blast of high-decibel sound from the devices, their hands covering their ears. But in Baghdad or other Iraqi towns, where there are crowds and buildings, the sick and elderly, as well as children, are likely to be in the weapon's range.

Proponents of non-lethal weapons argue that pain and hearing loss, if they were to occur, are certainly preferable to death, which is always possible when lethal force is applied. But this argument ignores realities on the ground.

Last week, as I watched televised images of angry Iraqis pelting US soldiers with rocks when they arrived to assist those injured in suicide bombings at mosques, I couldn't help but wonder whether the presence of a sound weapon to disperse those crowds would just escalate hostilities.

In February, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a task force report on non-lethal weapons, arguing that their widespread availability might have helped in the immediate post-combat period in Iraq to reduce looting and sabotage.

The council threw its weight behind greater investment in these technologies partly based on a Joint Chiefs of Staff "mission needs statement" signed last December. "US military forces lack the ability to engage targets located where the application of lethal [weapon fire] would be counterproductive to overall campaign objectives," the Joint Chiefs concluded.

The Council on Foreign Relations recognized that the effect of non-lethal weapons is mostly "psychological -- persuading people that they would much rather be someplace else, or on our side rather than opposing US military forces." It warned that "television coverage of encounters involving [non-lethal weapons] can still be repugnant, and it would be desirable to provide reliable information to minimize unwarranted criticism."

Yet after paying lip service to the very psychological and political fallout that could result from the employment of novel technologies like acoustic weapons or high-powered microwaves, the council task force urged that prototype non-lethal weapons -- that is, weapons just like American Technology's new sound weapon -- "be placed with our operating forces" to test their efficacy and create greater demand among combat commanders.

Is actual combat in a foreign country the appropriate place to test a new weapon? Apparently, we are about to find out.

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is posted without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

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