If you believe what they portray in the movies, armies of
the future will replace bullet-based
guns with ray guns like the phasers used by the crew of
the Starship Enterprise in "Star Trek." The United States
military has announced that it is developing a new technology
that closely resembles those futuristic weapons. This new
directed-energy beam weapon exploits one of our natural
defense mechanisms -- pain.
Photo courtesy USMC
Artist concept of the pain beam mounted to a
Anytime we get hurt, we feel pain, and our first response
is to move away from the source of that pain. For instance, if
you touch a hot light
bulb, it burns your skin. Your body recognizes the pain
and causes you to jerk your hand away from the light bulb.
This natural reaction is the basis for the U.S. military's new
pain beam, which burns the surface of the skin in order to
drive away adversaries. Officials say that the "non-lethal"
weapon, called active-denial technology, doesn't cause
lasting damage to the people hit by it.
This new pain beam is an alternative to conventional
weapons that are designed to injure and kill. One official
said that the weapon is particularly useful when innocent
persons are mixed in with adversaries. In this edition of How
Stuff Will Work, you will learn how the beam weapon
heats the skin and what research will have to be done before
it is field-ready.
The active-denial system weapon
is designed to transmit a narrow beam of electromagnetic
energy to heat the skin without causing any permanent
damage. The beam is sent out at the speed of
light by a transmitter measuring 10 by 10 feet (3 by 3
meters). An intense burning sensation continues until the
transmitter is turned off or the targeted individual moves
outside of the beam's range. The exact size and range of the
beam is classified, but it is designed for long-range use.
Officials report that the weapon penetrates the skin less
than 0.016 inches (0.04 cm), not far enough to damage organs.
Long-term exposure to light, such
as in sun-tanning,
is said to be more harmful than the pain beam. Some human
rights activists have voiced concerns about possible damage to
military officials contend that targeted people would likely
close their eyes before damage is done.
Photo courtesy USMC
prototype of the U.S. military's pain beam looks like a
satellite dish. Eventually, a smaller system could be
mounted to Humvees, planes and
The U.S. Marine Corps is planning to develop a
vehicle-mounted version of the system, which will be called
Vehicle-Mounted Active Denial System, or VMADS. Future
versions might also be mounted to ships and planes.
The VMADS system might be packaged on a vehicle such as a High
Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV, commonly called
a Humvee). A field-ready VMADS could be ready by 2009.
The non-lethal energy-beam
technology was developed in response to U.S. Department of
Defense needs for soldiers to have options short of using
deadly force, which is what most conventional weapons are
designed for. The active-denial system technology was
developed by the Air
Force Research Laboratory and the Department of Defense's
Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate. They have spent more than
10 years and $40 million dollars developing this new pain
According to an Associated
Press story, the active-denial technology has been tested
on 72 people at Brooks Air Force Base since 1994.
Humans have been exposed to the beam more than 6,500 times for
an average of less than 10 seconds, with no serious injuries
Other than minor skin tenderness caused by repeated
exposure to the beam, there are no lasting effects. A review
of the weapon has determined that the risk level of being
injured by it is minimal. The weapon also meets all U.S.
treaty obligations. Further research, development and testing
are expected to continue through the summer of 2001. A final
review will be performed before the weapon is declared
With the unveiling of the pain-beam gun, the Pentagon is
poising itself for a new age of warfare. U.S. armed forces are
often thrown into volatile areas of the world, where enemies
are intermixed with innocent citizens. The U.S. Department of
Defense is preparing for these situations by designing a
weapon that repels attacks but lowers the potential for
unintended civilian causalities.
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