Written by Nicolai Blankers, May 24, 2012
Directed energy weapons have become a popular topic of discussion in recent years - people talk of their incredible scientific potential, ability to be absolutely devastating in war or useful tools against riots, and how they impact the ecosystem. But with advancements in directed energy weapons comes a chasm between science and layman's understanding, and average people are then expected to make decisions about whether or not this is something they want in their lives, when they have no understanding of what is actually at stake and what great research opportunities it could present. With directed energy weapons, there is an amazing scientific potential to rapidly cauterize injuries in combat or industrial environments, burn away inoperable tumors, demolish buildings more safely and effectively without producing toxic byproducts and sending droplets of molten steel into the air, even perform search and rescues in unfavorable environmental conditions. However, there is an equally incredible potential for abuse of authority, and for directed energy weapons to become torture devices used in war... or against citizens rightfully protesting their government. This article is intended to help people with average scientific knowledge understand what directed energy weapons are, how they work, and how they could potentially be used both positively and negatively.
There are two categories of directed energy weapons: acoustic and electromagnetic. Acoustic directed energy weapons work by concentrating and directing the energy of a mechanical wave - turning sound into condensed destructive force which can knock people over where they stand and shake buildings. Examples of acoustic directed energy weapons include ultrasonic cleaners and deterrents (i.e. the ultrasonic device "The Mosquito" used in the U.K. to break up mobs), the Long-Range Acoustic Device (L-RAD), and the infrasonic generator. Electromagnetic directed energy weapons work by generating a radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic wave and transmitting it as a burst of energy across a distance. Examples of electromagnetic directed energy weapon include the electromagnetic pulse generator, microwave directed energy weapon, HERF (High Energy Radio Frequency) gun, and plasma impulse weapon.
Handheld ultrasonic deterrents are becoming more and more popular for personal defense. They operate on an oscillating mechanical frequency in the range of 15-19 kHz, right on the edge of human hearing, and use parabolic reflectors to concentrate the energy into a directional blast. When this blast of sound is directed at a person from sufficient range - about 15 feet for a handheld deterrent - it causes pain, nausea, and disorientation until they leave the effective range of the weapon. In addition to being used for personal defense, at a higher audio frequency this type of small ultrasonic deterrent is often used for rodent control. Much larger ultrasonic weapons are used by tactical defense agencies against violent mobs and riots which break out at large protests. They are ultimately harmless, causing no physical damage and no residual discomfort once the target is outside of the effective range. However, due to the magnitude of pain and discomfort caused in the effective range, such devices could feasibly be used - for example - by burglars to deter owners from returning into their house to disrupt the burglary.
The L-RAD, or Long-Range Acoustic Device, is a large system which concentrates acoustic energy into a concussive force. The input sound to be concentrated can be anywhere in the frequency spectrum, from infrasound all the way up through ultrasound. It produces a powerful shockwave or continuous force which can shatter glass, shake buildings, and knock an entire crowd of people over where they stand. They are still largely experimental, but in practice they are most commonly used for crowd control. With enough experimentation, the L-RAD could potentially become an excellent device for defense - after all, what better way to prevent invaders from entering one's homeland than by setting up an invisible barrier which generates enough force to knock them over and prevent them from moving toward it? However, it could just as easily be used for abusive, unnecessary offensive purposes, as has been demonstrated by the Japanese government, who use the L-RAD in an effort to knock the helicopters of peaceful protesters out of the air.
Acoustic directed energy weapons of sufficient power have overwhelming capacity to be used as abusive weapons of war or unnecessary destruction. At high power, an L-RAD could be used to crush a human rib cage with the push of a button. Governments would have a much easier time assassinating enemies from a distance using directed acoustic energy of sufficient magnitude - making them less likely to think critically before invading foreign countries and killing political leaders they are in disagreement with. They could be used to create turbulence in low-flying aircraft, and potentially even to damage engines. Even at low power, poachers could use such weapons to deter a large amount of wildlife animals toward a group of their people, prepared to kill said animals. Small ultrasonic deterrents could be used by governments to force civilians to stay in their houses. No matter how responsible governments, individuals, and workers try to be as the new technology unfolds, it is only a matter of time before authority - by its very nature - begins to abuse its capability and use it to unjustly suppress persons of inferior authority.
Despite the potential for government and individual abuse, acoustic directed energy weapons have incredible potential in scientific research. In the mining industry, large machines are sometimes used to generate a specific ultrasonic wave which breaks apart rock in specific locations. Scientific experimenters have been investigating the potential use of this technology to break apart gall stones, kidney stones, and abnormal growths of bone in the human body. Ultrasonic directed energy is also a quick and simple method of cleaning nanotechnological components of electronics, which could not be cleaned by conventional measures.
I am somewhat skeptical about the use of miniature acoustic directed energy weapons as personal defense devices, though, since different people have different pain thresholds and respond differently to varying levels of discomfort. The Taser - another common personal safety device - works by forcing the muscles in the body to contract so that the attacker cannot command their body to mug the victim, steal their car, etc. For this reason, even if a person has a tolerance to the pain of the Taser defense, they would be still unable to carry out their intended crime. The handheld ultrasonic deterrent, however, works by pain alone. If a perpetrator is determined and/or experienced enough, they would push through the pain and continue their attack... or worse, become enraged at the pain and murder the victim then and there when they otherwise might have let him/her live.
Electromagnetic directed energy weapons are a bit more complicated, since different kinds operate at varying intensities and frequencies and are intended for different uses. The most basic of such devices - the electromagnetic pulse generator - typically produces a Super Low Frequency (SLF) wave alternating at about 100 Hz. This wave has incredibly low energy, but due to its long wavelength can penetrate most materials which would normally act as a Faraday shield (conductors preventing electrical or electromagnetic energy from passing through them). This is why SLF waves are the preferred method of radio communication with submarines, which are difficult to effectively send a radio wave to since they're surrounded by conductive salt water. An electromagnetic pulse generator works by producing and transmitting a radio wave which interacts with existing electric currents in machines and electronics, destabilizing them and causing power surges and severe damage throughout the electrical system in question. They can also erase magnetically stored data such as hard drives and credit cards - a notable concern in the modern world, where erasing a large amount of electronic data could mean erasing your identity.
Use of a small electromagnetic pulse generator may be convenient in many situations - wouldn't it be nice if you could just flip a switch and fry your wannabe gangsta neighbor's annoyingly loud boom box at 3:00 in the morning? - but where would we draw the line? Police are looking to use the generator as a weapon against those evading arrest by inciting a high-speed chase, by frying the vehicle control computer so that the car won't go anywhere. This would eliminate the hazards associated with a high-speed car chase, but aiming a weapon is hardly an exact science - what happens to the car of an innocent civilian which gets in the way between the police and the target criminal? Who will pay for the costly repair work for their car? Remember, police are funded by the taxpayers!
Furthermore, the sudden high-power destruction of the vehicle control computer wouldn't cause the criminals' car to glide to a gentle stop right next to where the police were waiting with handcuffs... no, that would be just a little too convenient. Rather, it would cause the entire engine to suddenly lock up, frozen solid and the car would be violently thrown into the air. The people inside could easily be killed by the force if they were traveling at a high speed. You might say that they deserved it if they were hardcore criminals on their way to murder innocent children, but we cannot just bypass due process... It would be a small step from police acting as necessary to kill criminals to the government murdering citizens who simply disagree with them.
Another electromagnetic directed energy weapon is the High Energy Radio Frequency (HERF) gun, which produces a steady radio wave transmission in the 300-500 kHz range, just below commercial AM radio. This is experimentally used in some countries to create an invisible field which a person cannot pass through without feeling unbearable pain. Like the acoustic weapons, it is used for crowd control and to disperse mobs and riots which break out at large protests. Since the spectrum in which the HERF gun operates is not close to the inherent electromagnetic resonance frequency of the human body or any of its major components, relatively high concentrations of electromagnetic energy at this frequency can be directed at the body without actually causing a burn (unless somebody were to physically touch the transmitter)... it only makes you feel like you're being burned alive. One problem with this, though, is that it is impossible to account for the exact resonance frequency of every single group of molecules composing a human body - especially since it differs between humans! For this reason, an RF generating device which is considered safe can reach perfect resonance with a specific molecular structure in a specific person's body and burn them severely. This is called an RF "hot spot" (and I will soon explain in greater detail how, exactly, radio waves can burn people). Now you might be thinking, "but if it's only a small molecular structure, there's no real health risk, is there?" This is normally true, which is why the risk is largely disregarded in industry and in scientific experimentation. But... what if the hot spot in the body was part of the central nervous system which delivers the signal for the heart to keep beating?
Perhaps the most controversial directed energy weapon in existence is the microwave directed energy weapon, which is similar to the HERF gun but is intended to physically burn the target person from a distance, rather than causing them unbearable pain with no lasting physical damage. This works through a process called dielectric heating - the energy of the radio waves causes electrons to travel faster and faster around the atomic nuclei that they orbit, and because they travel so much faster more collisions occur between them, resulting in more friction and therefore heat is produced. Since dielectric heating uses the atomic structure of the object itself to produce heat, it is far more efficient than fire - consider how much faster your microwave oven heats food than your conventional oven.
Because the inherent electromagnetic resonance frequency of water is within the microwave spectrum, this particular radio frequency causes dielectric heating in organic materials very quickly. A sufficient concentration of microwave energy can cause a mass of water to turn, suddenly and explosively, into steam. Imagine that happening inside the human body and you will have a good idea of the risks involved in using the microwave directed energy weapon.
In 2005 the United States Marine Corps received a prototype of this microwave directed energy weapon to field test, intended to assassinate known terrorists from a distance. The idea was that the terrorist could be walking down the street, a Marine hiding on a rooftop would use the weapon to cause dielectric heating in his body, and within five minutes the terrorist would fall to the ground, dead... and with their technological limitations, terrorist strategists wouldn't be able to understand how he died. However, at the same time as the prototype was given to the USMC, some soldiers within them formed a small group which wanted to stray from the ethical implications of the Corps. They were dedicated to killing Iraqi civilians if that was what it took to bring down terrorist leaders, misguided into thinking that crushing one's enemies in such a manner was the American way and that military leaders were afraid to do what needed to be done. This group of rogue soldiers began targeting a family who they believed was shielding known terrorists and providing them with supplies and other resources to help them keep on the lam from the American military. Finally they captured the family's nine-year-old boy, and to get information from them, used the prototype microwave directed energy weapon to torture him. The prototype was intended to kill adults at a distance of 20 feet within 5-10 minutes. This nine-year-old boy, the Marines tortured for hours, directly touching his arms with the transmitter and keeping the radiation concentrated directly on him at a very close distance. Eventually the family managed to escape, and brought the child to a refugee center which provided safe harbor and free medical care to civilians caught in the crossfire. They amputated his arms and prevented the burns from becoming infected, but the boy died from internal trauma within five days.
WARNING: Graphic pictures of torture victim!! View at your own discretion!!
This is what the microwave directed energy weapon has the potential to do when used as a tool for torture:
Perhaps the scariest thing is that even though this weapon has been indefinitely shelved - until such a time as we can agree on certain international laws pertaining to its ethical use - this nationalist faction of Marines still exists. When caught, the most violent and out-of-line are dishonorably discharged, but others are hailed as heroes. One more thing: The weapon has only been indefinitely shelved for use in war. There are government, police, and tactical leaders who believe that a weaker version should be made and used to restrain violent protesters.
I believe that purely scientific use of electromagnetic directed energy weapons should be unrestricted, unregulated, and unlimited, but authoritative and government entities such as (but not limited to) politicians, police, federal agents, and military shouldn't be allowed to use or have access to them unless ordinary citizens can as well, should we ever need to defend ourselves from our government. They could establish a licensing system similar to Amateur Radio for citizens to prove that they're responsible enough to own such weapons, and I would be fine with that... as long as authoritative figures are subject to the same transmit power restriction as citizens.
As for acoustic directed energy weapons, I think we should establish a separate defense organization consisting of people who serve as both scientists and soldiers, and they should be the ones operating the weapons and deciding what is to be done with them (the same applies for electromagnetic directed energy weapons used by the military). They can work with the military and coordinate the attack, which would keep certain military personnel's trigger-happy attitude in check and allow military personnel to receive proper training before being expected to handle weapons which have the ability to kill without contact.