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[infowar.de] Wired 10.07.05: (DEW) Beam It Right There, Scotty
Beam It Right There, Scotty
08:39 AM Jul. 10, 2005 PT
ARLINGTON, Virginia -- For years, the U.S. military has explored a new kind
of firepower that is instantaneous, precise and almost 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 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 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 landmines, shoulder-fired missiles or automobiles -- a prospect that
interests police departments as well as 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 precise that, as some designers put it
at a recent conference here, the military could plausibly deny responsibility.
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
"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
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 doing.
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 testing remains.
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 Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems in Indiana, 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
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 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.
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