A decade ago, the Active Denial System was lauded as America's less-than-lethal 'holy grail' that could control hoards of unruly Iraqis and Afghans at great distances. Well, that never happened. Now, America's experimental 'pain ray' has become smaller and cheaper, and it may be coming to a police force near you.


The Active Denial concept picked up steam during the early days of the Bush Administration's defense spending splurge as a USAF Research Laboratory project. At the time of its fairly rapid initial development, large and tense protests and packed prisons were plaguing America's missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The DoD needed something that could keep a lot of people at bay, and Raytheon's Active Denial System was seemingly that something.

As the technology took shape, it began looking as menacingly mysterious as its name sounded. A huge planar array antenna attached to a massive military off-road capable truck via a swiveling turret base made up the majority of the system. It was brutish looking, in a sci-fi way.


The system worked by sending out a powerful microwave beam of energy at a frequency of 95Ghz and a wavelength of 3.2mm, all at distances ranging in the thousands of feet. Working like a giant microwave oven, the ADS's emissions excite the water and fat molecules in a 'target's' skin. Unlike its microwave oven cousin, ADS does not 'cook' a target because of it operates at a much higher frequency and shorter wavelength. This results in the oven effect only penetrating about 1/64th of an inch into the targeted person's skin skin, and for only a short period of time.

After a decade of testing, the DoD says 11,000 people have been exposed to the ADS's powerful microwave blast and only two received superficial injuries, which were burns between the 1st and 2nd degree. Both patients recovered quickly from these injuries.


The ADS's maker, defense giant Raytheon, has installed a limiter in the ADS that dictates how long the system can be activated at any given time, which is said to be around three seconds per shot. During lab tests, which were on animals and most likely horrific, there were no long-term side effects disclosed such as cancer or retinal damage. Still, concerns about the ADS's long term effects would not die easy.

Although the "pain ray" is less-than-lethal, at least when used how it was intended, its perceived effects are anything but pleasant. People who have had the device tested on them say that it feels like someone opened an invisible door to a blast furnace in front of them, or that their skin was being scorched all over instantly. The ray's effects is said to ellicit an almost instant response, and that response is to get the hell away from the thing as fast as possible.


Towards the middle of the decade, Raytheon, working with the DoD, refined the technology enough for it to be deployed to Iraq, but these deployments were denied on political grounds even though many commanders on the ground were begging for the system.

In 2010, the system was finally shipped overseas to Afghanistan, spending a relatively short amount of time in country before being withdrawn back to the states as commanders were controversially reluctant to use it. Part of this reluctance had to do with the possibility that the ADS's other-worldly effects could have been used as propaganda by the Taliban. Others say that the move to return the ADS prematurely to the US for debatable reasons was near sighted and cost Afghan lives.

Seeing as the DoD had already invested over $40M in ADS at the time of its withdraw from Operation Enduring Freedom, development continued on the system. Going forward, ADS research was aimed at miniaturizing and migrating the technology to a solid-state design so that it could be used on the move, such as mounting it on ships, armored personnel carriers and even on helicopters. Also, large strides were made at making ADS more economically accessible to Homeland Security related agencies and local police departments.

An updated version of the truck mounted long-range ADS that featured a smaller logistic and physical footprint, called ADS2, was the center of the military's ADS development. On the commercial and law-enforcement side, a smaller and shorter ranged modular ADS system called "Silent Guardian" was developed.


The migration from a huge, power-hungry, long-range, less-than-lethal crowd control and area denial device to a small law enforcement deployed one is clearly where Active Denial microwave tech is headed. Some application concepts see these systems being mounted on the ceilings of jails across the US, where an entire room can be incapacitated remotely at the twist of a joystick and a squeeze of a trigger.

During riot situations, a lower power cart or SUV mounted ADS could be used to deter a crowd's encroachment on a certain area, or on the police force's position itself. A single system could be swept across a large group of people at far closer ranges than what the military's original ADS was built for, and the effects would be largely the same.


By having multiple ADS arrays covering different directions in a persistent or quickly modulated short-range burst manner, such an arrangement could allow for an invisible buffer to be installed between those who the users of the system want to keep away and a key piece of infrastructure the ADS is protecting. This configuration could be useful to sanitizing the area around vehicles carrying VVIPs or at protect mobile command centers and rallying points during a riot situation.

Using the ADS as an anti-piracy defense system in a similar manner has been a key focus of Raytheon's marketing of the system for commercial uses. This mirrors the success of less potent Long-Range Acoustical Devices (LRAD) systems in recent years which are intended for similar scenarios.

The ability for ADS to deter, and then incapacitate a driver has also been a key application focus for the program. Border crossings, embassies gates, and temporary checkpoints overseas are ideal potential operating locations for the more powerful Active Denial Systems.


A modular "Silent Guardian" system was to be installed in an LA County Jail as a trial run coordinated by The National Institute Of Justice, but the system was pulled before it was even operational on grounds that using it could be considered torture.

The objection to Active Denial Systems are numerous, but outside the debate if less-than-lethal crowd control devices should be used at all, the objections seem to pale in comparison to those surrounding current less-than-lethal capabilities. A recent piece by Alex Fox in the Correctional News outlines criticisms and concerns in regards to ADS:

As with many new military and law enforcement technologies, the use of Active Denial Systems has been strife with controversy. While they are intended to reduce violence and prevent the use of lethal force, for some people the idea of using less-than-lethal weapons that cause pain raises political, economic, health and human rights issues. Similar opposition was expressed when tasers were first introduced but perhaps more so with Active Denial because it targets multiple individuals. Concerns have been raised that the technology could be abused and used as a means of torture. Opponents say that inmates would be subjected to excessive force to inflict pain rather control and that it would go undetected because there are no visible signs left on the person after they are exposed. Concerns have also been expressed about whether it could cause unintended effects, illness or injury. Some people have concerns that outside of military and correctional settings, law enforcement could use this technology to control peaceful protesters and dissent, which is unacceptable in this society.


Although there clearly is a stigma around ADS's almost other-worldly abilities, in many ways it is a less-invasive option than other less-than-lethal applications such as hurling teargas canisters, shooting bean bag rounds out of a 12 gauge shotgun, or taking a club to someone's torso. Yet, as the debate intensifies regarding the militarization of our hometown police forces following the terribly handled protests in Ferguson, MO, fielding a 'pain ray' may raise some eyebrows. On the other hand, having cops running around pointing AR15s at citizens, along with the other more 'established' and more violent means of riot control, seems like a much more dangerous alternative.

The darker side of this new form of crowd control and area denial, beyond it being a threat to collective action, is that the system could be used as a very efficient torture weapon. This is especially true if the system were applied over prolonged periods of time on an immobilized subject, and tuned specifically to maximize pain without killing. In other words, the ADS may be capable of some pretty abhorrent things if put in the wrong hands.


Regardless of the ethics here at home, the device's relatively simple nature means that other nations will develop their own similar devices. Supposedly Russia has been working on a cruder version for some time.

Regardless of the judicial and social questions surrounding Active Denial Systems, this technology could be coming to a local law enforcement agency near you in the not so distant future.


As Active Denial Systems continue to shrink in size, become simpler to operate, and costs less to procure, the largely unsubstantiated and emotional negatives of the system will be far eclipsed by the positives from a law enforcement standpoint.

In coming years, we may look back at the once familiar bean-bag shotgun rounds, rubber bullets, teargas, and billy clubs, all of which can kill, and the DoD developed "pain ray" will seem civil in comparison, although maybe a little too efficient in its ability to send whoever it is pointed at running anywhere but its direction.

Photos via DoD, Raytheon, AP, Public Domain

Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who edits the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com