A Chinese defense company recently unveiled a long-range weapon that can cause people overwhelming pain without killing them.
IHS Janes reports that the system, known as the Poly WB-1, uses millimeter-wave beams to scald targets from up to a kilometer away. When the beam strikes a person, it excites water molecules just under his or her skin, heating them up enough to cause extraordinary pain. Your microwave oven does the same thing to your leftovers. The plan, it seems, is to mount the WB-1 on ships—likely those patrolling disputed waters.
The US deployed its own nonlethal microwave beam as a crowd control weapon in Afghanistan. But the device, called the Raytheon Active Denial System (ADS) was recalled in 2010 without ever seeing it used. Critics at home and abroad raised serious questions about the ethics of using a pain beam to break up riots.
Noah Shachtman, who broke the story that the ADS had entered an active conflict, wrote this back in 2010:
The U.S. mission in Afghanistan centers around swaying locals to its side. And there’s no better persuasion tool than an invisible pain ray that makes people feel like they’re on fire.
OK, OK. Maybe that isn’t precisely the logic being employed by those segments of the American military who would like to deploy the Active Denial System to Afghanistan. I’m sure they’re telling themselves that the generally non-lethal microwave weapon is a better, safer crowd control alternative than an M-16. But those ray-gun advocates better think long and hard about the Taliban’s propaganda bonanza when news leaks of the Americans zapping Afghans until they feel roasted alive.
The military, in an attempt to demonstrate that the ADS could be used humanely with certain safeguards, offered some journalists a chance to try it out. 60 Minutes aired a segment with a reporter standing in front of one:
The reporter walks away unscathed—and that's the point. A nonlethal, non-gruesome weapon empowers militaries to enforce their will without generating the sort of shocking images that provoke condemnation and dissent.
Ando Arike at Harper's wrote:
Although “first-generation” weapons like rubber bullets and pepper spray have gained a certain acceptance, despite their many drawbacks, exotic technologies like the Active Denial System invariably cause public alarm. Nevertheless, the trend is now away from chemical and “kinetic” weapons that rely on physical trauma and toward post-kinetic weapons that, as researchers put it, “induce behavioral modification” more discreetly. One indication that the public may come to accept these new weapons has been the successful introduction of the Taser — apparently, even the taboo on electroshock can be overcome given the proper political climate. Indeed, the history of the device is instructive...
Originally sold as an alternative to firearms, the Taser today has become an all-purpose tool for what police call “pain compliance.” Mounting evidence shows that the weapon is routinely used on people who pose little threat: those in handcuffs, in jail cells, in wheelchairs and hospital beds; schoolchildren, pregnant women, the mentally disturbed, the elderly; irate shoppers, obnoxious lawyers, argumentative drivers, nonviolent protesters — in fact, YouTube now has an entire category of videos in which people are Tasered for dubious reasons. In late 2007, public outrage flared briefly over the two most famous such videos — those of college student Andrew Meyer “drive-stunned” at a John Kerry speech, and of a distraught Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, dying after repeated Taser jolts at a Vancouver airport — but police and weapon were found blameless in both incidents. Strangely, YouTube’s videos may be promoting wider acceptance of the Taser; it appears that many viewers watch them for entertainment.
As China moves forward with its microwave system, the world may get another test case for the new generation of television-friendly crowd control.