ADS Ray Gun – Update 1

Hello all!

This is my first update on the progress of my Monroe research project with which I hope to examine non-lethal weapon (NLW) development and weigh in how the US government should go about implementing the next generation of such weapons (which happens to be the straight-out-of-a-sci-fi-movie Active Denial System) to avoid potential human rights abuses that could result from the proliferation of this technology.

I started this research journey by whipping out my laptop and searching the internet for sources of information. I don’t know what I expected (perhaps I was just out of practice after being out of a school for a few months) but I definitely underestimated how many sources were out there and the time it would take me to sift through all of them. I spent hours pouring over scholarly journal articles, newspaper articles, and policy memos on NLWs and have learned a lot about the NLWs of the past, the technical details of the new Active Denial System (ADS), and opened Pandora’s box of ethical concerns regarding the relationship between these weapons and war/peace. At first the information was overwhelming, but as I kept going (with many mental breaks on various meme pages to refresh my brain in between) I was able to organize what I was learning.

The Department of Defense has become more and more interested in the development of NLWs thanks to two main factors. First, respect for human life has become an ethical imperative since the World Wars of the twentieth century, and military actions are consequently heavily scrutinized by international institutions (Orbons, 2010, p. 80). Second, the battlefield in modern warfare has become increasingly asymmetrical with urban settings and guerilla targets that make it difficult to distinguish enemies from civilians. These two factors, exhibited by the United States’s wars in the Middle East, especially Afghanistan, present the United States with a dilemma on how to defeat enemies with as close to zero civilian casualties as possible. One U.S. general even went as far to say that gaining and maintaining the trust and confidence of the Afghan population was a greater requirement than killing enemy combatants (Poland, 2010, p. 1). Thus the need for more effective NLW became a top priority.

There are a lot of different types of non-lethal weapons (I won’t bore you with a list of all of them, but think along the lines of police batons, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tasers), but the most recent innovation in NLW development is the ADS. It began as a classified Air Force program in the 1990s and was officially revealed by the Department of Defense in 2006. ADS is a directed energy weapon that generates millimeter waves that strike the target and penetrate the nerve endings one sixty-fourth of an inch under the skin causing an intense heating sensation that instinctively forces the target to flee. The burning sensation has been compared to touching a hot oven (McKechnie, 2011, p. 18). In the development process, ADS was tested on hundreds of volunteers including Naval Special Forces soldiers, and no one was able to withstand the painful burning sensation for longer than a second or so. This energy beam also cannot be blocked in any way—  even a heavy overcoat provides zero projection — and has the greatest range of any NLW (Mraz, 2009, p. 23). As opposed to non-lethal weapons of the past which needed to be administered at fifty meters away or closer, ADS can be operated from a much greater, safer distance and still accurately pinpoint targets (Levine, 2009, p. 2). Finally, once the energy beam has been removed from the target, there are no traces of the contact nor are there any adverse health effects of any kind (ibid, p. 5-7).

With its ease of use and effectiveness, ADS seems like the perfect solution to the U.S. military’s problem with civilian casualties. However, many human rights groups like Amnesty International have spoken out against the weapon because the lack of physical evidence on targets make it easy to hide abuses (Oakes & Smith, 2013, p. 8; Orbons, 2010, p. 89). Though its capacity to potentially save lives is great, the question of how to protect against abuses must be considered. Now that I understand the technical and operational benefits of the ADS, I will use the time I have left on this project dissecting different arguments addressing these ethical concerns of ADS and non-lethal weapons in general.



Fridman, O. (2016). Civilian casualties – do we really care?: The failure of the revolution in military affairs of non-lethal weapons in the U.S., Russia and Israel (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Reading (United Kingdom)). Ann Arbor, MI. doi:10178565

LeVine, Susan. (2009). The Active Denial System A Revolutionary, Non-lethal Weapon for Today’s Battlefield. Center for Technology and National Security.

Oakes, A. & Smith, D. (2013). The Active Denial System Obstacles and Promise. Project on International Peace and Security Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations, 1-29.

Orbons, Sjef. (2010). Do Non-Lethal Capabilities License to ‘Silence’? Journal of Military Ethics, 9(1), 78-99. doi:10.1080/15027570903353828

Mraz, Stephen J. (2009). Taking out the enemy… without hurting them… too much. Machine Design, 81(17), 22-25. ProQuest.

Neale, Ron. (2001). ADS is a don’t kill ‘em cook ‘em crowd control weapon. Electronic Engineering, 39.

Poland, Gregory T. (2010). Developing a Combined Lethal and Non-Lethal Capability for the Individual Marine. United States Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting Marine Corps University.

McKechnie, D. B. (2011). Don’t Daze, Phase, or Lase Me, Bro! Fourth Amendment Excessive-Force Claims, Future Nonlethal Weapons, and Why Requiring an Injury Cannot Withstand a Constitutional or Practical Challenge. Kansas Law Review, 60. doi:10.17161/1808.20203

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