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So-called Wonder Weapon given the sack

At Armchair Generalist, Jason Sigger notes the US military has withdrawn the Active Denial System, formerly known as the Sheriff, aka the Hummer mounted millimeter wave pain ray -- from Afghanistan.

Sigger writes:

[The] US military is pulling its "less-than-lethal" Active Denial System out of Afghanistan after just deploying it there a short while ago. This is due more to policy and perception issues than technical issues.

Reacting to original notice at Wired, Sigger is not entirely pleased with the decision for reasons made perfectly clear if you go to the Generalist. The pain ray is supposed to be a non-lethal weapon, after all.

Be that as it may, I've written about the pain ray off and on for a long time, starting at the Village Voice in the old Weapon of the Week column. And the tale of the ADS escaped DoD's very stage-managed publicity.

In observing how this story unfolded, the reasons for the weapon's withdrawal become clear.

Take this from 2002, when DoD was just beginning to tout it as a wonder weapon:

The Department of Defense's bland name for this electronic heat ray is the Vehicle-Mounted Active Denial (VMAD) system, a mouthful of jargon that yields few clues about the weapon's nature. Allegedly designed for an Orwellian task--"humanitarian missions"--the VMAD is a giant version of your microwave oven, without the safety box surrounding it. The generals want to move it around on a humvee.

Official propaganda on the device is that it makes one's skin only lightbulb hot, enough to force a person to run but not enough to cook him. Of course, there is no proof this can be achieved, because the results of tests on people are classified. It's safe, insist the inventors, the air force's Directed Energy Directorate in Albuquerque.

But anyone with first-hand experience broiling hot dogs and other non-robust meats in their tabletop microwave might be chary of such an assertion. Struck by the heat ray, "Sssss," went the eyeball.

What is the microwaver's target? It must be unarmed civilians, because as described, the VMAD wouldn't seem to offer much against terrorists or regular soldiers ready to fire back with conventional weapons. What is certain is that the Pentagon's microwave projects lack oversight and common sense. In one manic, grandiose claim, the Defense Department calls VMAD "the biggest breakthrough in weapons technology since the atomic bomb."

The lust for military microwaving has also been a sinkhole for tax dollars. While much of the work remains deep in the shadows, the Directed Energy Directorate (DED) does allow that $40 million went out the door for the VMAD over the last decade. An additional $15 million was awarded to ITT Industries for research on high-power microwaving applications in bombs and other types of ray guns.

Microwaving facilities pictured as part of the Directorate also look to have cost a small fortune. One 27,000-square-foot concrete monolith is worth $9 million, resulting in a "cost-effective and timely capability."

Vendors capitalizing on the VMAD include Raytheon, CPI (Communications and Power Industries), and Veridian Engineering--a tech firm menacingly cited for its part in researching "biological effects."

The hype on the Sheriff, as it was called then, was so thick a German television crew asked me just before the outbreak of war in Iraq if the Pentagon would use the "death ray." This was the perception overseas. Back in 2002.

Over the years, DoD's publicity campaign for the ADS was always the same.

Noxious and intelligence-insulting, it boiled down to: Recruit some journalist to be the gimp in a strapped down chicken test, the piece of meat to be left out standing in the field as a target.

In return for being shot the reporter got to visit wherever the pain ray was stationed -- in the past couple years, Moody AFB in Georgia -- to write a story about how great the thing was.

The pain ray was always said to be a revolution in military less-than-lethal technology. It was something needed by our boys, pronto!

Richard Machowicz of Futureweapons was one strapped down chicken a couple years ago. Even 60 Minutes was recruited.

In 2008, on the 60 Minutes advertisement for the ADS, from el Reg:

The [other miracle weapon in our story is one] that's never done anything but win the hearts and minds of its handlers and the journalists commissioned to write about it after it had shot them. Just prior to the war, the Vehicle Mounted Active Denial System, since shortened to just Active Denial System, was ridiculously hailed by people in the Department of Defense as the biggest breakthrough in weapons technology since the atomic bomb. From there, it's been almost all downhill for the Hummer-mounted pain gun that heats the top layer of skin with millimeter waves.

It had been hoped that the ADS, nicknamed The Sheriff, would arrive in Iraq in time to aid pacification and occupation operations. But a peculiar thing happened.

In their quest for publicity, the weapon's minders worked out a system whereby reporters would be given the opportunity to be burned and awed by it in return for cheerleading notices. The practice worked but not in the way ADS pushers had hoped. Many stories, all glowing, were generated. But at the same time, the US gained a world reputation as a nation that tortures prisoners. This cognitive dissonance erased the value of the ADS publicity scheme. A Hummer-mounted ray gun that agonizes people, even if only non-lethally, is seen as a potential instrument of America-style torture, one aimed at unarmed foreigners.

Since the beginning of the Iraq war, the ADS has been regularly promised and every year it has failed to show, left to languish by Pentagon men who probably don't want to see their careers go down in flames over it. Moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, the ADS has had progressively less money devoted to it, a sign that at least a part of the DoD wishes it would go away. Its liabilities include factors ranging from possible foreign public relations nightmare to its being recently described on "60 Minutes" as against the ingrained culture of a military that wants weapons which kill people as fast as possible.

The Air Force resorted to something of a Hail Mary pass for it earlier this month, farming the ADS out to "60 Minutes" where, as usual, it was described as a wonder weapon, one that could have solved a multitude of big woes that are now water under the bridge, like the blasting of Fallujah. "Pentagon officials call it a major breakthrough which could change the rules of war and save huge numbers of lives in Iraq," claimed CBS News' David Martin. Like many who had so bravely gone before him, Martin allowed himself to be shot by the ADS in return for a puff piece explaining that the reason it wasn't already in Iraq saving lives was because of lack of proper backbone among Pentagon leaders.

In five years of war, the ADS became politically untenable. "You don't ever, ever, ever want a system like this to be thought of as a torture weapon," Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Sue Payton told "60 Minutes." Payton also told the news operation she "loved" the ADS and "started giggling" after being shot by it, adding another negative - a whiff of craziness - to the stigma of the pain ray.

Since the war began, few ADS stories have been complete without indication that it was going to Iraq soon. This time it's for summer fun. The bright side is that if it continues true to form, it's just another in a five year-long list of assorted threats and promises never quite delivered as billed.

The ADS program was also contaminated by the Pentagon's reliance on kooks. And its inability to control them once they've been released from active duty.

From 2008, also at el Reg:

The US military's pain ray, aka the Active Denial System, is a certified excrement magnet. In March Reg readers learned that the US Air Force wonder weapon is still being pitched as a game changer in Iraq, a prediction that's never even been close to being tested.

ADS defenders claim the Pentagon, afraid that using it would be a public relations disaster, won't give the non-lethal pain ray, a gun that shoots millimeter waves, the green light. It's something the US would use to torture foreigners, preferably smaller and not as well-armed as our boys.

Ah, but maybe it's not just a pain ray - maybe it's a death ray, too! And it's been hiding in plain sight under cover of a non-lethal weapons program.

The deliverer of the death ray claim was Dave Gaubatz, a former Air Force man who had done security for the ADS. Unfortunately for the military, Gaubatz also became a public relations liability.

Seeing undercover Muslim subversion everywhere in the US, Gaubatz was prone to appearing in the US media as the bearer of eye-popping inflammatory statements, like these, archived at TPM.

But back to the ADS and what was written at el Reg:

[The] interesting [death ray] allegation comes by way of a man named Dave Gaubatz, and FrontPage magazine.

Gaubatz, described as a former veteran of the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations, informed FrontPage that 60 Minutes, as well as everyone else, had been fed a crock on the pain ray. It was originally designed, he said, as a straight lethal ray gun and it's been operational for years. It was ready for use in Iraq where it could have slain the enemy and saved American lives. And 60 Minutes made a big mistake by not getting the truth of this and "putting our soldier's lives in danger everyday."

"Each day that goes by and another soldier dies should weigh heavily on every member of 60 Minutes," said Gaubatz.

Well into the weird, Gaubatz explained that journalists have all been fed a story about the non-lethal weapon. This is true, but only to a point - one not yet in crazy world. Then the narrative jumps the cliff. The journalists are culpable because they're "liberals who know less about the Ray Gun [yep, that's in caps] than they do basic fundamentals of war."

And readers now see what happened to the Active Denial System.

Although the Pentagon's careful publicity campaign for it spanned many years and many journalists, it backfired badly.

While various big name reporters were consenting to be shot by the ADS in order to generate stories on the great new non-lethal wonder weapon, the rest of the world -- not being stupid -- perceived it much differently.

That message: The US had invented a nefarious device to be sent to the Muslim world for the agonizing of civilians. Just another instrument of torture.

One imagines very few sane US military leaders would want to see their careers incinerated upon publicized or leaked news on use of the wonderful pain ray on civilians in Afghanistan.

So the ADS -- while sent there for a brief period -- never fired a shot, according to reports. And has now been shipped home for obvious reasons.

Somewhere, there's a book in this. One on how really stupid ideas, packaged in futurism, whizz-bang technology, the hype of sycophants and the belief in American exceptionalism in all things, blow up when the rest of the world doesn't agree to drink the Kool-Aid.

Or, more simply: Just because you can make such a thing doesn't mean you should.

This post was published in an earlier form at Dick Destiny.

The opinions expressed in this article and the SitRep website are the author's own and do not reflect the view of

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