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Sci-fi beam weapons become reality in new nonlethal technology

03/02/01 - WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- The near future may see U.S. military units employing beam weapons on the battlefield.

Although this may seem like science fiction, the Air Force and Marine Corps took a big step toward making this science fact March 1, when they announced a breakthrough technology designed to project an energy beam that drives away adversaries without injuring them.

This emerging and revolutionary force-protection technology gives servicemembers an alternative to using deadly force, said Marine Corps Col. George P. Fenton, director of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program, Quantico, Va.

Two Air Force Research Laboratory teams led the technology development. One team was the laboratory's directed energy directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., and the other was from the human effectiveness directorate at Brooks AFB, Texas.

The development was done in response to Department of Defense needs for alternative options to the more traditional weapons that can cause serious injury or death, Fenton said.

"A weapon like this could be particularly useful when adversaries are mixed with innocent (people)," he said.

The Vehicle Mounted Active Denial System technology uses millimeter-wave electromagnetic energy to stop, deter, and turn back advancing adversaries from a relatively long range.

While the exact range of the beam is classified, Fenton said the goal is to employ the nonlethal weapon against adversaries before servicemembers can come under small arms fire.

To accomplish this, the transmitter sends a narrow beam of energy to the target and penetrates less than 1/64th of an inch into the skin, quickly heating up only the skin's surface.

When the beam is focused on a subject, within a few seconds they feel pain that only stops when the transmitter is shut off or when the subject moves out of the beam, according to Dr. Kirk E. Hackett, of the directed energy directorate at the Air Force Research Lab, Kirtland AFB.

The technology exploits a natural defense mechanism -- pain -- that has evolved to protect the human body from damage.

According to Fenton, the heat-induced pain produced by the energy beam is similar to the experience of briefly touching an ordinary light bulb that has been left on for a while.

Pain from the heat makes a person remove their finger from the light bulb before a burn can happen, he explained. Similarly, exposures from this nonlethal weapon technology cause a repellent effect but not physical damage to the body.

"We've done a lot of research on this technology and have shown there are no harmful health effects," said Dr. Michael Murphy, head of the Biological Effects Research Team at Brooks AFB. "There isn't any injury because of the low energy levels that are used. The beam only needs to be on for a few seconds to achieve its purpose."

"There is more physical damage to skin from exposure to visible light, such as sitting on a sunny beach, than from the energy that this technology exploits," Hackett said.

All testing is being conducted with strict observance of the procedures, laws and regulations governing animal and human experimentation, Murphy said.

The tests have been reviewed and approved by the Air Force Surgeon General's Office and are conducted by the Air Force Research Laboratory's human effectiveness directorate.

Current testing is being conducted under field conditions at Kirtland AFB.

Although additional testing is expected to continue into this summer, officials have begun examining the technology for use on a vehicle-mounted version. Future versions might also be used onboard planes and ships, Fenton said.

The project is being funded under the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. Approximately $40 million has been spent on this technology over the past decade.

The program was established in 1997 under the U.S. Marine Corps to recommend, develop and field less-than-lethal weapons for U.S. armed forces.

The two Air Force Research Laboratory directorates leading this project conduct research into a variety of directed energy technologies and effects.

RELATED LINKS
- Air Force Research Laboratory
- Kirtland Air Force Base
- Brooks Air Force Base



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