Russia’s Defense Ministry is testing a new nonlethal ray gun for use on protesters, which looks like a close facsimile of the American system in development. The difference could be that the Russians are willing to use it.
Eleven years ago, the Pentagon unveiled the Active Denial System, a nonlethal crowd-control device firing a beam of 94-Ghz microwaves (known as millimeter waves) developed by Raytheon. The beam has a much shorter wavelength than a microwave oven and very different effects. The waves penetrate only about 1/64 of an inch, and anyone caught in the beam experiences painful but harmless heating of their skin. It causes what developers call a repel effect; nobody can stand it more than a few seconds before having to get out of the beam.
A vacuum tube device called a Gyrotron generates the microwave beam (a type of Maser, a microwave laser). The Gyrotron is far more powerful than the Magnetron used in a domestic microwave and produces a tight, coherent beam. The operator aims it using a joystick and video screen. With a range of several hundred yards and a beam about 6 feet across, Active Denial could disperse riots from a safe distance. But it has never been used in a real-life situation.
Back to Russia: Earlier this year, now-president Vladimir Putin promised that Russia would develop weapons based on “new physical principles” including new beam weapons and “psychophysical” weapons. Now, according to the Interfax News Agency, the Russian military is testing its own beam weapon, which is being developed at the 12th Central Military Research and Development Institute Sergiyev Posad outside Moscow.
Interfax quotes the Institute’s director, Dmitry Soskov, as saying that the device uses high-frequency radiation to cause intolerable pain by heating. Like the Active Denial System, the Russian beam heats water molecules, penetrates a fraction of a millimeter and creates an intolerable sensation in seconds. Soskov says their device has a range of about 300 yards and would fit into a minibus, suggesting a smaller, lower-powered version than U.S. systems. According to Interfax, the weapon could be used for suppressing mass riots in cities. (Russia has recently seen high levels of civil unrest following the disputed presidential election.)
Although the U.S. has had Active Denial in the works for longer than the Russians have, the nation has refrained from using it for political rather than technical issues. Two mobile prototypes are ready to go—one mounted on a Hummer, the other on a 10-ton Oshkosh HEMTT truck. Despite that, and despite the fact that the Pentagon has commissioned no less than six independent reviews of Active Denial’s safety, the Pentagon has refused commanders’ repeated requests to deploy Active Denial to Iraq. One system was sent to Afghanistan, only to be brought back again without being used. The fear, it seems, is handing a propaganda victory to enemies by using a ‘ray gun’ on civilians.
“We want to just make sure that all the conditions are right, so when it is able to be deployed the system performs as predicted—that there isn’t any negative fallout,” said Col. Kirk Hymes, head of the Defense Department’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, according to an AP report.
Russia may not share these concerns. Recently the country has taken a tougher line on crowd control than the U.S. has, and with fewer qualms about civil rights. In 1993 protesters, some of them armed, occupied the Russian White House. Then-President Yeltsin sent in the tanks. They fired on the upper stories to minimize casualties and demoralize the protesters. The assault cleared the protestors, but there were many deaths. In 2002, Chechen terrorists took 800 people hostage in the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow. Russian security forces ended the siege by pumping in an aerosol anesthetic, knocking out everyone inside. This operation ended the siege, but more than a hundred hostages died as a direct result of the chemical agent.
And while the U.S. remains jittery about potential bad press surrounding this technology, Putin talks about new weapons as “instruments for achieving political and strategic goals.” That makes it sounds like something he plans to use, especially when defending his presidency.
Jürgen Altmann, an expert on nonlethals from Dortmund University who has studied the ADS technology, says that there is no doubt the Russians have the technical capability to copy it. Altmann notes a statement by Soskov that the weapon could be used to counter internal mass disorder, suggesting it might be intended mainly for use inside the country. “The question suggests itself whether the military sees the weapon already in the context of the restrictions on the rights to demonstrate that have been introduced in the Russian Federation recently,” Altmann says.
Those restrictions are increasing. Lately Russia has upped police raids and the detention of organizers, and increased in the fine for participating in protests by one-hundred-fiftyfold. Some people claim to have been arrested simply for wearing the white ribbon sported by protesters, and many complain of police violence. Putin is unlikely to have scruples over ordering active denial into action if it would resolve another White House occupation or a wave of embarrassing protests.
Meanwhile, in the U.S
Meanwhile, America’s Active Denial development continues. Raytheon, which developed the original systems, is marketing a commercial version under the name Silent Guardian. Raytheon first offered it as a containerized system suitable for mounting on shipping to repel pirates, or as a fixed installation. Now it also comes in a smaller version with a range of 50 meters. Known as the SG-R50, this has a gimbaled projector unit weighing 700 pounds and a 400-pound chiller that provides supercoooling for the electronics.
The technology will shrink when compact solid-state electronics are introduced, which will also remove the need for supercooling. Ultimately this could lead to portable units. “These [solid-state] systems have been in development under the auspices of various U.S. government agencies and could be produced and available in the near term,” says Mike Booen, Raytheon’s vice president of Advanced Security and Directed Energy Systems.
But whether the U.S. ever uses Active Denial could depend greatly on what Russia does. No matter how different the Russian and American systems actually are, Active Denial could be condemned to disuse if Russia fires its version into a crowd and injures people. The Moscow theatre siege back in 2002 had this kind of effect on chemical calmatives, basically ending research in the West.
If beam weapons prove successful in Russia, TV news may show Russian forces scattering stone-throwing crowds from long range, with no injury to either protesters or police. Perhaps Westerners watching their own security forces use potentially lethal batons, rubber bullets, and tear gas, will be asking, “Why don’t we have something like that—especially when we just spent $120 million developing something similar?”