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$120 million heat ray waiting for first action

QUANTICO, Va. — In the market for a long-range heat ray? The Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate can hook you up.

The “Active Denial System” beams a high-frequency, man-sized electromagnetic wave 1,000 meters. The target feels a blast of heat, similar to opening a very hot oven, and reflexively steps or runs away. The nonlethal weapon, which can be mounted on a military vehicle, is primarily designed for crowd control.

Military leaders and researchers demonstrated the system Friday on reporters, Marines pretending to be up to no good, and even the director of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, Marine Col. Tracy Tafolla.

The JNLWD hosted a similar demonstration of the weapon in 2007. At the time, officials thought Marines in Iraq could get the ray by 2008. Instead, the weapon was sent to Afghanistan in 2010 and then sent back without being used.

Now, Tafolla said, the technology is mature and the weapon is ready to be used. Someone just needs to ask.

The heat ray gives servicemembers “an option between shouting and shooting,” said Susan LeVine, the directorate’s principal deputy director for policy and strategy.

And injury risks are far lower than other non-lethal weapons like rubber bullets or pepper spray, said Stephanie Miller, with the biological effects branch of the Air Force Research Laboratory. The weapon has been tested on more than 11,000 people, and in just two of those cases, it caused second-degree burns, she said.

Researchers also have determined the ray doesn’t cause cancer or exacerbate existing cancer, nor does it cause fertility problems or birth defects, Miller added.

“This is the safest nonlethal capability that we have,” Tafolla said. “You’re not going to see it, you’re not going to hear it, you’re not going to smell it. You’re going to feel it.”

Lance Cpl. Andrew Rubio, one of the young Marines who yelled, “Heck no, we won’t go” and threw tennis balls at a mock entry control point in one of the demonstrations, echoed others who said the ray felt like opening an oven door.

But Rubio said it wasn’t something he could tough out. His reflexes kicked in and he got out of the way as soon as possible.

That reflexive feeling has been universal, program manager Brian Long said. He suggested the ray could easily be used for perimeter security at a forward operating base, or to stop a speeding car without destroying it. Unlike other weapons or measures, it can repel people without destroying property.

“I think it’s applicable wherever you want an alternative to lethal force,” Long said.

So far, the Department of Defense has spent about $120 million on the system – mainly on research on the biological effects, LeVine said.

And, LeVine said, contrary to some reports, “It is not like a microwave oven. At all.”

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