The U.S. Department of Defense has
conducted another round of tests on its microwave crowd control system (ADS,
for Active Denial System). They now know that ADS does not cause cancer or
blindness. These tests are but the latest of numerous delays in sending ADS to
a combat zone. The politicians and generals are worried about the bad press
they are certain they would receive if they used a "death ray" on
civilians, or even armed hostiles.
ADS works by
broadcasting microwaves at a frequency that makes people feel like their skin
is on fire. Tests have shown that no one can stand it for more than about five
seconds, before desperately seeking to get away from the area. After 14 years,
and over nearly $100 million, ADS has solved numerous technical problems, but
appears permanently stalled because of potential public relations difficulties.
All this is
a common problem with "non-lethal weapons" (as things like ADS are
called), which are not, however, one hundred percent non-lethal. But people
love to call them non-lethal, because such devices are intended to deal with
violent individuals without killing them. A classic example of how this works
is the Taser. A gun like device that fires two small barbs into an individual,
and then zaps the victim with a non-lethal jolt of electricity, the Taser has
been popular with police, who can more easily subdue violent, and often armed,
individuals. Before Taser, the cops had a choice between dangerous (for everyone)
hand-to-hand combat, or just firing their weapons and killing the guy. While
the Taser has been a great success, for every thousand or so times you use it,
the victim will die (either from a fall, another medical condition, use of
drugs or whatever).
These Taser deaths have been fodder for the
media, and put Taser users, and non-lethal-weapons developers, on the
defensive. Because of that attitude, the Department of Defense went through
more human testing to get a better idea of what kind of accidental deaths the
ADS could cause. They concluded that most common cause of ADS related
fatalities would be from falls, or getting trampled, as victims fled the ADS
microwave ray. While potential ADS users know, from combat experience, that ADS
would cause far fewer fatalities than existing methods (firepower), they also
know that any fatalities from ADS use would generate bad press. That could be a
career ending event. When you have one dead body, you can't use the fact that
you don't have ten, or a hundred, as a defense.
The war on
terror has made ADS more acceptable for some situations, as it could be used to
guard sensitive targets. This would include targets thought vulnerable to
suicide bomber attack, like ports, nuclear power plants or public buildings.
ADS can be effective several hundred meters away, more than enough range to
stop suspected suicide bombers who have ignored all other warnings. Navy ships
in ports vulnerable to terrorist activity could also use ADS. However, each ADS
system costs about four million dollars, so they won't be passed out like riot
shields and tear gas grenades.
In 2004, it
was thought that ADS could enter service in 2005, but then it was delayed for
three more years of testing and lawyer-proofing. That allowed time for the
development of an improved version that is more reliable, and better able to
operate in very hot environments.
thinking is that it might be better if ADS was used on some rioting Americans
first, before using it a lot on foreigners. At the moment, however, there's a
real shortage of nasty mobs in the United States. In the meantime, ADS cowers
in the shadows, fearful and unused because of indignant lawyers and
politicians, and journalists ready to exploit it for all its worth.
to abandon its product, the manufacturer, Raytheon, is offering ADS to civilian
users (police and other organizations with security needs) under the name,
"Silent Guardian." At the moment, ADS appears to be one of those
technologies that is the next big thing, and always will be.