Help Stop New US Weapon — the “Pain Ray”

January 20th, 2006 - by admin

Brett Wagner / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-01-20 08:55:51

Help Stop New US Weapon — the PAIN RAY:
Why the US Should Never Deploy its Latest Weapon

Brett Wagner / San Francisco Chronicle

(January 18, 2006) — The US military-industrial complex has just developed a dangerous weapon that should never, under any circumstances, be deployed. No, I’m not talking about the “bunker-buster” nukes that were, thankfully, denied funding once again in next year’s federal budget.

The new weapon — first reported in the press in 2004 — is known in military circles as the Active Denial System. It has been nicknamed the “pain ray” — and with good reason. According to, an online military information service, the new weapon “fires out millimeter waves — a sort of cousin of microwaves — in the 95 GHz range. The invisible beams penetrate just 1/64th of an inch beneath the skin. But that’s deep enough to heat up the water inside a person. Which is enough to cause excruciating pain. Seconds later, people have to run away. And that causes mobs to break up in a hurry.”

The weapon’s range is 700 yards and a 2-second burst can heat the skin to 130 degrees. Charles Heal, a widely recognized authority on nonlethal weapons who has dubbed the ray the “Holy Grail of crowd control,” likened it to having a hot iron pressed against the skin.

Raytheon has reportedly developed such a device that can be mounted on a Humvee for the Pentagon. According to a recent report on, the head of the Army unit charged with rapidly securing new gear for use by troops, Col. Robert Lovett, “has requested that [the device] be rushed to the field to support military operations in Iraq.” Lovett’s memorandum cites a request by Col. James Brown, commander of the 18th Military Police Brigade, for the immediate deployment of the Active Denial System to help “suppress” insurgent attacks and quell prison uprisings.

As a national security expert and a former professor for the US Naval War College, I understand the urgency felt by commanders on the front lines to provide US troops with the best weaponry available. But because of that built-in bias, we are fortunate to have a civilian-led military in order to keep our long-term interests in the proper perspective. Not only do I strongly disagree with the two colonels; I feel compelled to publicly oppose their request.

Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s copy. For example, the baseball team lucky enough to include on its roster the pitcher who first developed the curveball had a temporary advantage, to be sure — at least until all the other pitchers learned the same technique. Likewise, military innovation, once deployed, enjoys only a temporary advantage until adversaries and allies alike are able to catch up.

That’s why developing a pain ray and deploying one are inherently different actions. Studying the capability of millimeter waves to cause pain might help us develop defenses against that technology; however, deploying the weapon merely invites other nations to follow suit. The stigma of deploying such weapons, once the line is crossed, is difficult to “uncross” — much like trying to put the “nuclear genie” back in the bottle.

Rather than deploying a pain ray, President Bush should instead begin developing a plan — drawing inspiration from the post-World War I leaders who banned the use of chemical weapons — to forever ban the use of millimeter waves (or similar technologies) in combat or any other form of “crowd control.” Otherwise, it will only be a matter of time before such weapons are used against American troops or by repressive regimes against their own citizens — or perhaps even by the US government against dissidents or unruly crowds in our own country.

Harlan Ellison observed in August 1975, on the 30th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: “For the first time we have a weapon that nobody has used for 30 years. This gives me great hope for the human race.”

Let’s hope that 30 years from now, the same can be said about the pain ray.

Brett Wagner is president of the California Center for Strategic Studies ( and executive director of the Swords into Plowshares Project.

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