- For years, the U.S. military has explored a new kind
of firepower that is instantaneous, precise and virtually inexhaustible:
beams of electromagnetic energy. "Directed-energy" pulses can
be throttled up or down depending on the situation, much like the 'phasers'
on 'Star Trek' could be set to kill or merely stun. Such weapons are now
- But logistical issues have delayed their battlefield
debut - even as soldiers in Iraq encounter tense urban situations in which
the nonlethal capabilities of directed energy could be put to the test.
- "It's a great technology with enormous potential,
but I think the environment's not strong for it," said James Jay Carafano,
a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who blames the
military and Congress for not spending enough on getting directed energy
to the front. "The tragedy is that I think it's exactly the right
time for this.
- The hallmark of all directed-energy weapons is that the
target " whether a human or a mechanical object " HAS NO CHANCE
TO AVOID THE SHOT because it moves at the speed of light. At some frequencies,
it can penetrate walls. Since the AMMUNITION IS MERELY LIGHT OR RADIO WAVES,
directed-energy weapons are limited only by the supply of electricity.
And they don't involve chemicals or projectiles that can be inaccurate,
accidentally cause injury or violate international treaties.
- "When you're dealing with people whose full intent
is to die, you can't give people a choice of whether to comply," said
George Gibbs, a systems engineer for the Marine Expeditionary Rifle Squad
Program who oversees directed-energy projects. "What I'm looking for
is a way to shoot everybody, and they're all OK."
- Almost as diverse as the electromagnetic spectrum itself,
directed-energy weapons span a wide range of incarnations. Among the simplest
forms are inexpensive, handheld lasers that fill people's field of vision,
inducing a temporary blindness to ensure they stop at a checkpoint, for
example. Some of these already are used in Iraq. Other radio-frequency
weapons in development can sabotage the electronics of land mines, shoulder-fired
missiles or automobiles " a prospect that interests police departments
in addition to the military.
- A separate branch of directed-energy research involves
bigger, badder beams: LASERS THAT COULD OBLITERATE TARGETS TENS OF MILES
AWAY from ships or planes. Such a strike would be so surgical that, as
some designers put it at a recent conference here, the military could plausibly
- The flexibility of directed-energy weapons could be vital
as wide-scale, force-on-force conflict becomes increasingly rare, many
experts say. But the technology has been slowed by such practical concerns
as how to shrink beam-firing antennas and power supplies.
- Military officials also say more needs to be done to
assure the international community that directed-energy weapons set to
stun rather than kill will not harm noncombatants.
- Such issues recently led the Pentagon to delay its Project
Sheriff, a plan to outfit vehicles in Iraq with a combination of lethal
and nonlethal weaponry " including a highly touted microwave-energy
blaster that makes targets feel as if their skin is on fire. Sheriff has
been pushed at least to 2006.
- "It was best to step back and make sure we understand
where we can go with it," said David Law, science and technology chief
for the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate.
- The directed-energy component in the project is the Active
Denial System, developed by Air Force researchers and built by Raytheon
Co. It produces a millimeter-wavelength burst of energy that penetrates
1/64 of an inch into a person's skin, agitating water molecules to produce
heat. The sensation is certain to get people to halt whatever they are
- Military investigators say decades of research have shown
that the effect ends the moment a person is out of the beam, and no lasting
damage is done as long as the stream does not exceed a certain duration.
How long? That answer is classified, but it apparently is in the realm
of seconds, not minutes. The range of the beam also is secret, though it
is said to be further than small arms fire, so an attacker could be repelled
before he could pull a trigger.
- Although Active Denial works - after a $51 million, 11-year
investment - it has proven to be a "model for how hard it is to field
a directed-energy nonlethal weapon," Law said. For example, the prototype
system can be mounted on a Humvee but the vehicle has to stop in order
to fire the beam. Using the vehicle's electrical power "is pushing
its limits," he added.
- Still, Raytheon is pressing ahead with smaller, portable,
shorter-range spinoffs of Active Denial for embassies, ships or other sensitive
spots. One potential customer is the Department of Energy. Researchers
at its Sandia National Laboratories are testing Active Denial as a way
to repel intruders from nuclear facilities. But Sandia researchers say
the beams won't be in place until 2008 at the earliest because so much
- In the meantime, Raytheon is trying to drum up business
for an automated airport-defense project known as Vigilant Eagle that detects
shoulder-fired missiles and fries their electronics with an electromagnetic
wave. The system, which would cost $25 million per airport, has proven
effective against a "real threat," said Michael Booen, a former
Air Force colonel who heads Raytheon's directed-energy work. He refused
- For Peter Bitar, the future of directed energy boils
down to money. Bitar heads Indiana-based Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems
Ltd., which makes small blinding lasers used in Iraq. But his real project
is a nonlethal energy device called the StunStrike.
- Basically, it fires a bolt of lightning. It can be tuned
to blow up explosives, possibly to stop vehicles and certainly to buzz
people. The strike can be made to feel as gentle as "broom bristles"
or cranked up to deliver a paralyzing jolt that "takes a few minutes
to wear off."
- Bitar, who is of Arab descent, believes StunStrike would
be particularly intimidating in the Middle East because, he contends, people
there are especially afraid of lightning.
- At present, StunStrike is a 20-foot tower that can zap
things up to 28 feet away. The next step is to shrink it so it could be
wielded by troops and used in civilian locales like airplane cabins or
building entrances. Xtreme ADS also needs more tests to establish that
StunStrike is safe to use on people. But all that takes money " more
than the $700,000 Bitar got from the Pentagon from 2003 until the contract
- Bitar is optimistic StunStrike will be perfected, either
with revenue from the laser pointers or a partnership with a bigger defense
contractor. In the meantime, though, he wishes soldiers in Iraq already
had his lightning device on difficult missions like door-to-door searches.
- "It's very frustrating when you know you've got
a solution that's being ignored," he said. "The technology is
the easy part."
- On the Net - Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate: https://www.jnlwd.usmc.mil
- © Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights