A few months from now, Peter Anthony Schlesinger hopes to zap a laser beam at a couple of chickens or other animals in a cage a few dozen yards away. If all goes as planned, the chickens will be frozen in mid-cluck, their leg and wing muscles paralyzed by an electrical charge created by the beam, even as their heart and lungs function normally. ...
Devices like these, known as directed-energy weapons, could be used to fight wars in coming years. ... Aside from paralyzing potential attackers or noncombatants like a long-range stun gun, directed-energy weapons could fry the electronics of missiles and roadside bombs, developers say, or even disable a vehicle in a high-speed chase.
The most ambitious program is the Air Force's Airborne Laser, a plan to mount a laser on a modified Boeing 747 and use it to shoot down missiles.
At the same Air Force Research Laboratory in New Mexico, researchers working with Raytheon Co. have developed a weapon called the Active Denial System, which repels adversaries by heating the water molecules in their skin with microwave energy. The pain is so great that people flee immediately. ...
But the idea of using directed energy against humans is creating debate fueled by deaths allegedly caused by Taser stun guns and the alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners -- which put the military's respect for human rights under a microscope. ...
Dominique Loye of the International Committee of the Red Cross has pleaded for more disclosure of directed-energy research and independent investigation into possible side effects.
Directed energy may cause "new types of injuries we're not aware of and may not be capable of taking care of," Loye said. "The message we try to put across is: 'We understand some companies are investing money, so maybe it will be worthwhile for you to start the investigation as early as possible and not to invest millions and millions and then 10 years down the line find out your weapon will be illegal."'
The weapons' developers, on the other hand, pitch them for their lifesaving potential.
The pinpoint accuracy of a laser could eliminate collateral damage caused by missile explosions, the argument goes, and stun gun-like weapons could save lives in hostage or bomb-threat situations. Directed energy also has the potential to explode roadside bombs or mines from a distance.
"You're dealing with the ability to pre-detonate the majority of improvised explosives that are used right now," said Pete Bitar, president of Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems, an Anderson, Ind., company that is developing a rifle-sized directed-energy gun for the Marines.
The device works by creating an electrical charge through a stream of ionized gas, or plasma. Bitar says it could be tuned to target the electronics of a vehicle or explosive device, or tuned to temporarily paralyze voluntary muscles, such as those that control arms and legs. The involuntary muscles, like heart and lungs, operate at a different frequency.