The effort to disable electronics has remained mostly secret. But in 2001, the Air Force publicly announced that it had made substantial progress in developing microwave weapons that target people, when it unveiled the Active Denial System.
Development of the system began in the 1990s with the Air Force's efforts to explore the biological effects of microwaves. A project code-named Hello studied how to modulate the clicking or buzzing sounds produced by microwave heating in the inner ear, to produce psychologically devastating 'voices in the head'. 'Goodbye' explored the use of microwaves for crowd control. And 'Good Night' looked at whether they could be used to kill people.
Only the Goodbye effect went into development as a weapon. Further bioeffects research was conducted in secrecy at Brooks Air Force Base near San Antonio in Texas, but even that program almost stalled when the weapon was ready to move from animal to human testing. Hans Mark, a nuclear engineer at the University of Texas at Austin who was then the Pentagon's director of defense research and engineering, paid a visit to Brooks in 2000 to check out the work. “Dr Mark didn't believe in the effect,” recalls Beason, “and he actually had a shouting match with one of the main researchers.” But Mark's approval was needed to advance the project, so he agreed to be subjected to the beam.
The Air Force got its human tests. The Brooks scientists joke that “you've never seen a political appointee run so fast”, says Beason.
Mark says that his doubts about the Goodbye effect were rooted in what he calls the “extravagant claims” made by its advocates. If nothing else, he says, the superconducting electromagnet that powered the system's pulse generator required a cooling system too big and cumbersome to be used in the field. Mark says that he allowed the system to proceed to human testing not because he was convinced that it would work, but because after exposing himself to the beam, he decided that human testing at least wouldn't harm anyone. “Almost all of this program has been a waste of money,” he says.
Mark's concerns have proved prescient: efforts to deploy the weapon have been futile. At the 2001 unveiling, the defense department touted the Active Denial System for use in peacekeeping missions in places such as Kosovo and Somalia. But after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the US Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate offered to deploy the Active Denial System to the region, it was rebuffed.
“We knew it wasn't reliable,” said Franz Gayl, the Marine Corps's science and technology adviser, in an interview last year. Worse, he said, the pulse generator was so big that it had to be carried on its own utility vehicle. “That was a recipe for disaster,” said Gayl, “because the operators are going to be a target.” And worst of all, he said, before use the system had to be cooled down to 4 kelvin — a process that took 16 hours.
The defense department tried to deploy the weapon in Afghanistan in 2010, but it was sent home unused. In the same year, California rejected a smaller version meant for use in prisons. The device was built by defense contractor Raytheon of Waltham, Massachusetts, which declines to discuss it.
Other weapons have fared little better. The Air Force Research Laboratory developed an HPM system called MAXPOWER to detonate roadside bombs remotely, but it was the size of an articulated lorry — too unwieldy to be deployed in Afghanistan. The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, the defense department's bomb-fighting agency, declined to discuss the system, citing classification issues. But it did say that, as of 2011, it was not funding MAXPOWER.