LONDON — Scientists are questioning the safety of a microwave gun for riot control that is scheduled to be deployed in Iraq next year.
The Active Denial System weapon, which has a Pentagon classification known as "less lethal," would fire a microwave beam at rioters to cause heating and intolerable pain in less than five seconds.
The idea is that people struck by the beam would rapidly try to move away from it, thereby causing the crowd to disperse.
But New Scientist magazine reported Wednesday that during tests carried out at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, participants playing the parts of rioters were told to first remove their glasses and contact lenses to protect their eyes.
In another test, they were also told to remove metal objects such as coins in clothing to avoid local hot spots developing on their skin.
In a previous report on the plan to use the weapons, London's Telegraph newspaper said the beam was designed to penetrate the skin to a depth of less than a millimeter.
It quoted Rich Garcia, a spokesman for the Air Force Research Laboratory in New Mexico, as saying, "It just feels like your skin is on fire. [But] when you get out of the path of the beam, or shut off the beam, everything goes back to normal. There's no residual pain."
Questions were raised in the New Scientist article.
"What happens if someone in a crowd is unable for whatever reason to move away from the beam?" asked Neil Davison, coordinator of a nonlethal-weapons research project at Britain's Bradford University. "How do you ensure that the dose doesn't cross the threshold for permanent damage? Does the weapon cut out to prevent overexposure?"
The magazine said that a vehicle-mounted version of the weapon, named Sheriff, was scheduled for service in Iraq in 2006 and that officials were working on portable versions.