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The Pentagon's Secret Scream

Sonic devices that can inflict pain--or even permanent deafness--are being deployed.

LA Times
March 7, 2004

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. Marines arriving in Iraq this month as part of a massive troop rotation will bring with them a high-tech weapon never before used in combat or in peacekeeping. The device is a powerful megaphone the size of a satellite dish that can deliver recorded warnings in Arabic and, on command, emit a piercing tone so excruciating to humans, its boosters say, that it causes crowds to disperse, clears buildings and repels intruders.

"[For] most people, even if they plug their ears, [the device] will produce the equivalent of an instant migraine," says Woody Norris, chairman of American Technology Corp., the San Diego firm that produces the weapon. "It will knock [some people] on their knees."

American Technology says its new product "is designed to determine intent, change behavior and support various rules of engagement." The company is careful in its public relations not to refer to the megaphone as a weapon, or to dwell on the debilitating pain American forces will be able to deliver with it. The military has been equally reticent on the subject.

And that's a problem. The new sound weapon might, in some scenarios, save lives. It might provide a good alternative to lethal force in riot situations, as its proponents assert. But the U.S. is making a huge mistake by trying to quietly deploy a new pain-inducing weapon without first airing all of the legal, policy and human rights issues associated with it.

This is a weapon unlike any other used by the military, and it is certain to provoke public outcry and the conspiracy theories that often greet new U.S. military technology. If the military feels that its new-style weaponry brings something important to the battlefield, and if testing has shown it to be safe, then why not make our reasoning and research transparent to the world?

Nonlethal weapons have been promoted by a small circle of boosters for nearly 15 years as something increasingly necessary for the U.S. military in its growing peacekeeping, urban-combat and force-protection missions. Some of the weaponry championed by the group, like rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades and, more recently, electromuscular disruptive devices, or Tasers, has already been deployed.

But the more exotic weapons including acoustic, laser, and high-powered microwave devices have not until now been fielded, held up by legal and ethical questions. Despite intense lobbying, over the years the Pentagon leadership has been skeptical of such "wonder weapons." In 1995, then-Secretary of Defense William Perry decided to ban Pentagon development of nonlethal laser weapons intended to permanently blind. His decision led to a subsequent international ban.

So shouldn't we have a similar discussion about high-intensity sound, which can cause permanent hearing loss or even cellular damage? The new megaphone being deployed to Iraq can operate at 145 decibels at 300 yards, according to American Technology, well above the normal threshold for pain. The company posits a scenario in which Al Qaeda terrorists would run screaming from caves after being subjected to a blast of high-decibel sound from the devices, their hands covering their ears. But in Baghdad or other Iraqi towns, where there are crowds and buildings, the sick and elderly, as well as children, are likely to be in the weapon's range.

Proponents of nonlethal weapons argue that pain and hearing loss, if they were to occur, are certainly preferable to death, which is always possible when lethal force is applied. But this argument ignores realities on the ground. Last week, as I watched televised images of angry Iraqis pelting U.S. soldiers with rocks when they arrived to assist those injured in suicide bombings at mosques, I couldn't help but wonder whether the presence of a sound weapon to disperse those crowds would just escalate hostilities.

Last month, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a task force report on nonlethal weapons, arguing that their widespread availability might have helped in the immediate post-combat period in Iraq to reduce looting and sabotage. The council threw its weight behind greater investment in these technologies partly based on a Joint Chiefs of Staff "mission needs statement" signed last December. "U.S. military forces lack the ability to engage targets located where the application of lethal [weapon fire] would be counterproductive to overall campaign objectives," the Joint Chiefs concluded.

The Council on Foreign Relations recognized that the effect of nonlethal weapons is mostly "psychological persuading people that they would much rather be someplace else, or on our side rather than opposing U.S. military forces." It warned that "television coverage of encounters involving [nonlethal weapons] can still be repugnant, and it would be desirable to provide reliable information to minimize unwarranted criticism."

Yet after paying lip service to the very psychological and political fallout that could result from the employment of novel technologies like acoustic weapons or high-powered microwaves, the council task force urged that prototype nonlethal weapons that is, weapons just like American Technology's new sound weapon "be placed with our operating forces" to test their efficacy and create greater demand among combat commanders.

Is actual combat in a foreign country the appropriate place to test a new weapon? Apparently, we are about to find out.

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