The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the annual military authorization bill signed by President Obama last week, reportedly includes an increase of more than 50 percent in funding for development and procurement of “directed-energy” weapons.
Funding for this category of weapon — which includes lasers, but also controversial “pain ray” crowd control devices — has now been approved to the tune of more than $300 million for 2017. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps each have their own “marquee program” in the development of lasers, the Military Times reports, and as laser technology continues to advance, continuing trends in modern warfare also make it increasingly attractive to planners at the Pentagon:
With U.S. forces operating in highly dense civilian populations, the ability to discriminate enemy targets becomes a must, and “laser systems enable precision ground attack to minimize collateral damage in urban conflicts and in close proximity to friendly troops,” the Defense Task Force on Directed Energy Weapons reported.
Laser weapon systems also have advantages over conventional munitions. Because lasers fire at the speed of light, enemy targets can’t avoid it. Lasers make no sound when fired and can’t be seen with the naked eye, allowing the operator of the weapon system to remain concealed through out the operation.
Yet aside from the headline-grabbing lasers — long a staple of science fiction, and familiar in their benign forms as guides to PowerPoint presentations and light show components — other “directed energy” technologies that can’t be seen with the naked eye have also been under development for some time. One example is Raytheon’s Active Denial System, a device that’s been described as a non-lethal “pain ray” or an “agony beam” that uses microwave radiation to create a burning sensation in the skin of its target, “producing intense pain without actual injury,” as Colin Clark of Breaking Defense put it (though ethics professor Jonathan Moreno notes in his book Mind Wars that the ADS could potentially damage the target’s eyes more permanently).
While weapons like ADS have been quietly under development for decades, the total amount spent on them is unclear.
“Trying to determine exactly how much money the Defense Department has invested in directed energy systems is particularly difficult, as separate agencies bury those expenses in different accounts,” Ariel Robinson wrote in an article for National Defense Magazine last year. “Other directed energy weapons funding is kept secret under the military’s classified budget.”
As Moreno and others have pointed out, the military has not made much use of the Raytheon ADS in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. This is not primarily due to outside pressure on humanitarian grounds, but rather because of the Pentagon’s own propaganda calculations that using the device would likely do more harm than good in winning the hearts and minds. Nonetheless, Moreno notes, such concerns about public opinion haven’t stopped trials from moving forward using a version of the ADS on inmates in a Los Angeles County jail.
Raytheon and its competitors continue to refine their pain ray weapons. Indeed, since the ADS became public knowledge in recent years, China has reportedly unveiled its own version of the non-lethal pain gun. In the US, meanwhile, it was reported earlier this year that new breakthroughs would allow for smaller-scale, easier to operate, and more mobile ADS weaponry.
So far, the arms race in non-laser directed-energy weapons appears to have remained largely a contest to see who can stockpile more of these exotic pain-inflicting devices, which in practice do little more than gather dust. Though they’ve certainly been tested, they’ve never seen widespread use, apparently due to little more than a sense of common decency among many sensible people in government. Our incoming president-elect, however, may not share this approach to sci-fi weaponry such as Raytheon’s pain beam.
President-elect Trump has made conflicting statements about torture, including that he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” He has said he would reverse a 2015 executive order restricting police access to surplus military equipment through what is known as the 1033 Program, and police advocacy groups appear to expect him to follow through.
Donald Trump’s election campaign strategy was somewhat unprecedented, and it remains unclear what he’ll do in office. What is already quite clear, though, is that public demonstrations against his agenda are likely to continue through his administration. And overly heavy-handed law enforcement responses to public protest would be nothing new for the U.S.
For someone like Trump, known for his temper and a level of personal insecurity that led him to repeatedly launch into Twitter feuds with relatively obscure critics during his election campaign, it would not be such a big step to turn directed-energy weapons like the ADS against civilian protesters. As President Obama prepares to leave office having just increased funding that will potentially pay for these kinds of weapons, perhaps our best hope is that, as in the past, the domestic population will be spared from the government’s pain rays and similar dystopian devices due to public relations concerns.