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U.S. police could get ‘pain beam’ weapons

January 16, 2009

by David Hambling

A modified version of this laser rifle created to dazzle enemies by the U.S. Air Force has been adapted by the Department of Justice to inflict pain from a distance. – Photo: U.S. Air Force
A modified version of this laser rifle created to dazzle enemies by the U.S. Air Force has been adapted by the Department of Justice to inflict pain from a distance. – Photo: U.S. Air Force
The research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice is working on two portable non-lethal weapons that inflict pain from a distance using beams of laser light or microwaves, with the intention of putting them into the hands of police to subdue suspects.

The two devices under development by the civilian National Institute of Justice both build on knowledge gained from the Pentagon’s controversial Active Denial System (ADS) – first demonstrated in public last year, which uses a 2-meter beam of short microwaves to heat up the outer layer of a person’s skin and cause pain.

‘Reduced injuries’

Like the ADS, the new portable devices will also heat the skin, but will have beams only a few centimeters across. They are designed to elicit what the Pentagon calls a “repel response” – a strong urge to escape from the beam.

A spokesperson for the National Institute for Justice likens the effect of the new devices to that of “blunt trauma” weapons such as rubber bullets, “But unlike blunt trauma devices, the injury should not be present. This research is looking to reduce the injuries to suspects,” they say.

Existing blunt trauma weapons can break ribs or even kill, making alternatives welcome. Yet ADS has recorded problems too – out of several thousand tests on human subjects, there were two cases of second-degree burns.

Dazzle and burn

The NIJ’s laser weapon has been dubbed Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response – PHaSR – and resembles a bulky rifle. It was created in 2005 by a U.S. air force agency to temporarily dazzle enemies, but the addition of a second, infrared laser makes it able to heat skin too.

The NIJ is testing the PHaSR in various scenarios, which may include prison situations as well as law enforcement.

The NIJ’s portable microwave-based weapon is less developed. Currently a tabletop prototype with a range of less than a meter, a backpack-sized prototype with a range of 15 meters will be ready next year, a spokesperson says.

The truly portable mini-ADS could prove the more useful, as microwaves penetrate clothing better than the infra-red beam, which is most effective on exposed skin. Although the spokesman says: “In LEC [Law Enforcement and Corrections] use there is always a little bit of skin to target.”

Torture concerns

The effect of microwave beams on humans has been investigated for years, but there is little publicly available research on the effects of PHaSR-type lasers on humans. The attraction of using a laser is that it can be less bulky than a microwave device.

Human rights groups say that equipping police with such weapons would add to the problems posed by existing “non-lethals” such as Tasers. Security expert Steve Wright at Leeds Metropolitan University describes the new weapons as “torture at the touch of a button.”

“We have grave concerns about the deployment and use of any such devices, which have the potential to be used for torture or other ill treatment,” says Amnesty International’s arms control researcher Helen Hughes, adding that all research into their effects should be made public.

David Hambling is the author of the 2006 book, “Weapons Grade: How Modern Warfare Gave Birth to Our High-Tech World” and many articles on military technology for New Scientist, where this story first appeared – it is reprinted with permission – and the science section of the Guardian.

One thought on “U.S. police could get ‘pain beam’ weapons

  1. Larry Schuller

    I would be very interested in a civilian application of this device if it could be made to weigh less than 3 pounds, have a range of 7 to 10 yards, produce its effect spread throughout a cone of 15 to 180 degrees be capable of three to five (or more) repetitions of a strength sufficient to discourage a large predator (Kodiak Brown, Grizzly or Polar Bear) or other large, dangerous animal (cow moose with calf, etc).

    We could relieve backpackers and campers of a lot of bear repellant and/or heavy revolvers or shotguns typically carried in our woods for protection and reduce the number of DLP (defense of life or property) dead bears (and mauled hikers who didn’t shoot that well).

    If you use this idea, I and my hiking partner want a pair of free ones.

    I wouldn’t even mind if the civilian version produced a 360 degree full circle effect. I would rather experience discomfort than a mauling or have to go tracking a wounded bear.


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