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National Public Radio (NPR) MORNING EDITION
(11:00 AM on ET) March 2, 2001, Friday

NEW CROWD-CONTROL WEAPON THAT THE PENTAGON IS DEVELOPING


BOB EDWARDS, host:

The Pentagon is developing a new secret weapon that sounds like something from a "Star Trek" episode. It would stop people by directing a beam of microwave energy at them, causing pain but no bodily harm. Pentagon officials say the weapon could be used to control unruly crowds or stop intruders. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN reporting:

For years, the US military has been looking for a good, non-lethal weapon, something that could be used on demonstrators or rioters, for example, without hurting them. Some armies have tried rubber bullets. For a while the US military considered shooting sticky foam at people but then gave up after realizing that getting the foam in your lungs would be damaging. With US troops increasingly being used in peacekeeping or humanitarian aid missions, the search for a reliable crowd control instrument has become all the more urgent. Marine Corps Colonel George Fenton recalls a time he could have used something like that: Somalia, 1993.

Colonel GEORGE FENTON (Marines): We had a fire team at a checkpoint. A crowd of 15 turned into a crowd of 5,000 in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes--two opposing forces, warlord forces back in that time frame. It looks like things were going to go nasty. Corporal on the phone, 'What do you want me to do?'

GJELTEN: Colonel Fenton is now the director of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate. He was at the Pentagon yesterday to demonstrate the latest non-lethal idea: focusing a beam of millimeter wave energy on someone for a few seconds, just long enough to make them feel an intense burning sensation, even found a few reporters willing to be guinea pigs.

Col. FENTON: You touch this device, you felt the heat sensation. If you walked into a beam of energy like that, would you be inclined to move, particularly if that was on your body? Absolutely. And that's the strength of this application. We can do it effectively without having to shoot a single round.

GJELTEN: The idea would be to mount this weapon on a military vehicle such as a Humvee and point it at individuals or groups of people who, for some reason, maybe threatening US troops or getting in the way of a mission. Zap them briefly with this weapon and the people move fast.

Col. FENTON: There's nothing inhumane about it. It's safe. It's completely safe. You walk out of the beam and the sensation dissipates almost immediately. There is no long-term effect with this, none, zero, zip.

GJELTEN: The energy beam would produce heat in the targeted person the same way a microwave oven heats up food, by agitating water molecules. But microwave oven rays are longer and at a much lower frequency so they penetrate the food being cooked, while the beams from this new weapon theoretically affect only the skin's surface to a depth of 1/64th of an inch. Still, if the beam is powered up enough and remains focused on someone long enough, it could burn the skin. The scientists who developed the weapon say people instinctively move out of the beam before suffering any damage. Other weapon experts aren't so sure. John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org is impressed but skeptical.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (GlobalSecurity.org): Non-lethal weapons, crowd-control weapons are something that the United States military is very interested in for peacekeeping operations and humanitarian relief operations and this sounds potentially like a very promising solution. The question, however, is whether this non-lethal weapon will get around a lot of the problems that other non-lethal weapons have had, namely how do you make them effective without rendering them lethal the same way any other normal military weapons are.

GJELTEN: The new technology has not yet been field tested and is not close to being cleared for production. US officials say they want to be sure the weapon would be legal before giving it a final green light. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, the Pentagon.


Copyright 2001 National Public Radio