29th May 06:35
military's energy-beam weapons dealayed
ARLINGTON, Va. Jul 14, 2005 - 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
Such weapons are now nearing fruition. 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
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
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
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 Institute for Defense and Government
Advancement conference, the military could plausibly deny
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
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 to elaborate.
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
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 recently ended.
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
"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://http://www.jnlwd.usmc.mil
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material