The Pentagon's quest for nonlethal arms is amazing. But is it smart?
Electromagnetic heat The Soviets were known to have potent blinding lasers. They were also feared to have developed acoustic and radio-wave weapons. The 1987 issue of Soviet Military Power, a cold war Pentagon publication, warned that the Soviets might be close to "a prototype short-range tactical RF [radio frequency] weapon." The Washington Post reported that year that the Soviets had used such weapons to kill goats at 1 kilometer's range. The Pentagon, it turns out, has been pursuing similar devices since the 1960s. Typical of some of the more exotic proposals are those from Clay Easterly. Last December, Easterly--who works at the Health Sciences Research Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory--briefed the Marine Corps on work he had conducted for the National Institute of Justice, which does research on crime control. One of the projects he suggested was an electromagnetic gun that would "induce epilepticlike seizures." Another was a "thermal gun [that] would have the operational effect of heating the body to 105 to 107" degrees Fahrenheit. Such effects would bring on discomfort, fevers, or even death. But, unlike the work on blinding lasers and acoustic weapons, progress here has been slow. The biggest problem is power. High-powered microwaves intended to heat someone standing 200 yards away to 105 degrees Fahrenheit may kill someone standing 10 yards away. On the other hand, electromagnetic fields weaken quickly with distance from the source. And beams of such energy are difficult to direct to their target. Mission Research Corp. of Albuquerque, N.M., has used a computer model to study the ability of microwaves to stimulate the body's peripheral nervous system. "If sufficient peripheral nerves fire, then the body shuts down to further stimulus, producing the so-called stun effect," an abstract states. But, it concludes, "the ranges at which this can be done are only a few meters." Nonetheless, government laboratories and private contractors are pursuing numerous similar programs. A 1996 Air Force Scientific Advisory Board report on future weapons, for instance, includes a classified section on a radio frequency or "RF Gunship." Other military documents confirm that radio-frequency antipersonnel weapons programs are underway. And the Air Force's Armstrong Laboratory at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas is heavily engaged in such research. According to budget documents, the lab intends to spend more than $110 million over the next six years "to exploit less-than-lethal biological effects of electromagnetic radiation for Air Force security, peacekeeping, and war-fighting operations." Low-frequency sleep From 1980 to 1983, a man named Eldon Byrd ran the Marine Corps Nonlethal Electromagnetic Weapons project. He conducted most of his research at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Md. "We were looking at electrical activity in the brain and how to influence it," he says. Byrd, a specialist in medical engineering and bioeffects, funded small research projects, including a paper on vortex weapons by Obolensky. He conducted experiments on animals--and even on himself--to see if brain waves would move into sync with waves impinging on them from the outside. (He found that they would, but the effect was short lived.) By using very low frequency electromagnetic radiation--the waves way below radio frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum--he found he could induce the brain to release behavior-regulating chemicals. "We could put animals into a stupor," he says, by hitting them with these frequencies. "We got chick brains--in vitro--to dump 80 percent of the natural opioids in their brains," Byrd says. He even ran a small project that used magnetic fields to cause certain brain cells in rats to release histamine. In humans, this would cause instant flulike symptoms and produce nausea. "These fields were extremely weak. They were undetectable," says Byrd. "The effects were nonlethal and reversible. You could disable a person temporarily," Byrd hypothesizes. "It [would have been] like a stun gun." Byrd never tested any of his hardware in the field, and his program, scheduled for four years, apparently was closed down after two, he says. "The work was really outstanding," he grumbles. "We would have had a weapon in one year." Byrd says he was told his work would be unclassified, "unless it works." Because it worked, he suspects that the program "went black." Other scientists tell similar tales of research on electromagnetic radiation turning top secret once successful results were achieved. There are clues that such work is continuing. In 1995, the annual meeting of four-star U.S. Air Force generals--called CORONA--reviewed more than 1,000 potential projects. One was called "Put the Enemy to Sleep/Keep the Enemy From Sleeping." It called for exploring "acoustics," "microwaves," and "brain-wave manipulation" to alter sleep patterns. It was one of only three projects approved for initial investigation.