The Pentagon's People Zapper

Defense Department officials describe their recently announced microwave anti-personnel device as a major step in the development of effective non-lethal weapons.

"This revolutionary force-protection technology gives U.S. service members an alternative to using deadly force," says Marine Corps Col. George P. Fenton, director of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate. Officially dubbed the Vehicle-Mounted Active Denial System, or VMADS, the device is intended for peace support purposes, such as crowd dispersal. "A weapon like this could be particularly useful when adversaries are mixed with innocent persons," Fenton says.

VMADS utilizes a beam of microwave radiation in the millimeter wavelength range to quickly heat up the skin's surface, causing pain.

"There are no harmful health effects" from the VMADS beam, according to Marine Corps officials, because the radiation penetrates less than 1/64th of an inch into the skin and because the pain stops when the transmitter is shut off or when the subject moves out of the beam.

Plans call for developing a version of the device to be mounted atop a vehicle such as the Humvee. Future versions might also be used on planes and ships. The "active denial technology" utilized by VMADS was developed by two Air Force Research Laboratory teams-one from the laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., and the other from the Human Effectiveness Directorate at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas.

Approximately $40 million has been spent on the technology over the past 10 years.

Christopher Morris of M2 Technologies, a contractor to the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, calls VMADS "leading-edge technology being brought within the purview of a program and a concept area which has been thought of as low-tech, tactical, limited and short range. This is a big profile jump for the technology base that we've been looking at."

Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, a leading newsletter on non-ionizing radiation, calls VMADS a "significant development" in directed energy weapons. However, he says that possible injuries, particularly to the eye, could lead to stopping further development and actual deployment of the device-as the Pentagon did in the mid-1990s when it was trying to develop blinding lasers. "The real question is whether it will go the way of the lasers," Slesin says. Like laser, exposure to the microwave beam could cause eye damage. "People will get out of the beam, but [injury to the eyes] depends on how much exposure they get," Slesin says.

Slesin also notes that "the only people who are doing health research on the effects of electromagnetic radiation are the people who are developing this weapon-the Air Force Lab. . . . They're the only people who have any money in the United States to do research on the health effects, and they're in firm control of the [safety] standard-setting process. . . . That's a clear conflict."