During the summer disturbances in Washington DC, some staff planner in the DC National Guard asked about deploying two DOD systems that seem to come out of science fiction. One, the Active Denial System (ADS), makes the target’s skin feel like it’s on fire. The other, called the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), directs intense sound in a narrow cone. The sound is so clear and so powerful that it was nicknamed “the voice of God.” I encountered both systems, one at Quantico, Virginia, the other in Falluja, Iraq. Here’s what I saw.
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The ADS is the most dramatic. It looks like a square dish mounted on a heavy truck and directs millimeter waves at targets. This directed energy makes the skin feel like it’s on fire. The feeling is so intense that you can’t withstand it. (Trust me on this; I felt it.) That drives targets to move away. Once out of the direct path of the beam, the effect ends. Here’s a video for those wanting to see the system in action.
ADS is technically not a “heat ray” because it uses millimeter waves, not infrared waves. That may seem like a minor difference, of interest only to physicists, but it is crucially important to the target. Heat rays (from the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) leave blistering (i.e., sunburn) that takes days to heal. The millimeter wave effect stops as soon as the target gets out of the way and does not leave a residual injury.
The LRAD is a smaller dish, mounted on a stand or light vehicle, that focuses sound in a narrow cone. The sound is very intense and clear, not like the attenuated sound of a bullhorn. In Iraq, the Marines used the system to warn civilians who were getting too close to Marine positions. The Marines found that civilians sometimes ignored all warnings―flags, flares, warning shots―and got shot. The LRAD produces sound so forceful that it could not be ignored. It got the attention of drivers even if they were listening to the radio or dealing with screaming kids in the backseat.
Why does the military have these systems? These systems, and many more, come out of an organization located at Quantico, Virginia, and run by the Marine Corps. Originally called the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate, it has been renamed (for classic bureaucratic reasons) the Intermediate Force Capabilities Office. The military stood this organization up in 1996 in response to the experience in Bosnia and Somalia. There, military forces faced hostile crowds but had few tools to deal with them.
The military decided to develop nonlethal systems to provide a capability between presence and lethal force. The Marine Corps led the effort because it felt these pressures most acutely, having frequently faced unruly civilians in its overseas deployments. Thus, the organization is headquartered on a Marine Corps base and headed by a Marine Colonel.
How should people think about these systems? The reporting has been breathless as if the military were about to shine death rays on peaceful citizens. The exotic nature of the technologies has added to the anxiety. In fact, both systems have been around for a long time and deployed overseas. (It’s not clear whether ADS was used overseas.) ADS has not been used operationally in the United States. LRAD is commercially available, and police departments use it occasionally. Indeed, LRAD has a variety of uses from scaring wildlife off runways to alerting boaters about danger.
Because the LRAD is like a powerful megaphone, its use seems relatively familiar. ADS is different, a novel and exotic capability for which there is no ready analog. People should think of it like a taser. Police departments routinely use tasers in the line of duty. For those fortunate enough not to have met one up close, a quick explanation: a Taser fires electrodes into the victim and then hits the victim with a high voltage that is enough to short-circuit the nervous system for a short period of time. Victims are incapacitated. Tasers have gained acceptance because they provide an intermediate step between a baton and a bullet. Someone coming after a police officer with a stick, for example, needs to be stopped, but they don’t need to be shot.
ADS is similar. It uses technology to incapacitate people without hurting them. It’s an intermediate force option. An important difference, however, is that tasers are used every day, and are hence familiar, while ADS is strange and unfamiliar.
Aren’t these the kind of systems that militarize the police? No. Militarization of the police is a real problem, but that’s not the issue here. Debates about militarization arise because DOD has a program whereby it provides excess military gear to police departments. Many have criticized the program for encouraging the overuse of force. However, the ADS and LRAD provide the opposite kind of capability: civilian policing capabilities brought into the military. Further, ADS would not be available even if police departments wanted it because the system is expensive, complicated, and scarce.
So, would it have been appropriate to deploy the systems? It’s important to note that the systems were not used and were not even moved to the area. The DC National Guard does not own them; they would come from other parts of DOD, likely the Marine base at Quantico. It’s also clear that a staff member just asked a question. That’s what staff members are supposed to do. It’s a long way from asking a question to deploying a capability.
The question of usage gets wrapped up in disputes about Pres. Trump’s attitude towards the use of force against demonstrators, and the fact that many people disagreed with his views. It’s a reasonable discussion about what level of violence requires what level of response. Wherever the line gets drawn, however, it is better to use a high-tech electronic beam than batons, tear gas, and, ultimately, firearms.
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