Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, put away your silly-looking toys. You, too, Captain Kirk. The real ray gun is here. It shoots an electromagnetic beam 700 yards that makes people feel as if they are about to catch on fire. Very scary, but also harmless. The military's long-winded (as usual) nomenclature for this amazing nonlethal development is Vehicle-Mounted Active Denial System, or V-MADS.
Two primary organizations are executing this program: the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, at Quantico Marine Corps Base, Va., and the Air Force Research Laboratory, based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where I once happened to work, by the way. Always lots of good stuff going on there.
The ray gun could spare the lives of civilians and service members in harm's way. It's designed to give field commanders an alternative means to protect defense resources, support peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, and to deploy in other situations in which the use of deadly force may not be desirable.
The device fires a narrow beam of 95-gigahertz ultra-shortwaves toward the subject. A two-second burst can heat the outer skin layer of the subject to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, causing a pain reflex that makes people pull away with the sensation that they are about to ignite.
The burning sensation, which feels like a sudden blast of heat throughout the body, is akin to that experienced by touching a hot light bulb, but without the actual danger of tissue damage. The burning stops when the subject jumps out of the way of the ray, or when the ray gun is switched off.
Two-second bursts did the job in tests. Subjects jumped out of the way in less than one second. Simple, harmless, with no collateral damage.
Some other nonlethal-weapon developments have been dropped because of criticism by so-called human-rights groups that the concepts involved potentially cruel hazards such as blindness. These systems included "dazzling" lasers that posed the risk of permanent eye damage.
Ironically, the human-rights groups apparently consider it acceptable to shoot someone, but not to blind them.
Because of the low energy levels used in the new ray gun, no harm or skin damage is done. The subject would have to stay in the beam for over four minutes before the skin is burned.
The ray gun is expected to be deployed by 2010, and could find much use in crowd dispersal and mob control. There is a delicate area where mobs run rampant, deliberately provoking the killing of one or two murderous militants or their human shields. As planned, this creates instant worldwide criticism of the United States by our enemies and our timorous "friends." The ray gun could be used to instantly defuse that kind of situation.
As a countermeasure, terrorists or insurgents could use a metal sheet or even a garbage can cover to deflect the beam. But not to worry. That's where the equally amazing, but decidedly ultra-lethal, .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle comes into play.
In an "off-label" use, perhaps our two political parties could provide the American people with much-needed entertainment by using the ray gun at one another's national conventions. I would pay to view that.
Solon Economou is a Cape Cod-based engineer and writer. He wrote this for the Providence Journal.