Sunday, March 7, 2004

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. soldiers in Iraq have a new weapon for dispersing hostile crowds and warding off potential enemy combatants. It blasts earsplitting noise in a directed beam.

The equipment, called a Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD, is a “nonlethal weapon” developed after the 2000 attack on the USS Cole off Yemen as a way to keep operators of small boats from approaching U.S. warships.

The devices have been used on some U.S. ships since last summer as part of a suite of protection measures.

Now the Army and Marines have added this auditory-barrage dispenser to their arms ensemble. Troops in Fallujah, a center of insurgency west of Baghdad, and other areas of central Iraq in particular often deal with crowds in which lethal foes intermingle with civilians.

The developer of the LRAD, American Technology Corp. of San Diego, recently won a $1.1 million contract from the Marine Corps to buy the gadgets for units deployed to Iraq. The Army also sent LRADs to Iraq to test on vehicles.

Dubbed “the Sound of Force Protection” in a company brochure, the devices can broadcast sound files containing warning messages, or they can be used with electronic translating devices for what amounts to “narrowcasting.”

If crowds or potential foes don’t respond to the verbal messages, the sonic weapon, which measures 33 inches in diameter, can direct a high-pitched, piercing tone with a tight beam. Neither the LRAD’s operators nor others in the immediate area are affected.

The devices “place distance between the Marine and their threat, giving him/her more time to sort out a measured and appropriate response,” Lt. Col. Susan Noel, force-protection officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said in an American Technology Corp. statement announcing the contract.

Carl Gruenler, vice president of military and government operations for American Technology Corp., compares the LRAD’s shrill tone to that of smoke detectors, only much louder. It can be as loud as about 150 decibels, while smoke detectors are in the 80 to 90 decibel range.

“Inside 100 yards, you definitely don’t want to be there,” said Mr. Gruenler, adding that the device is recommended for a range of 300 yards or less. He said he lacked “initial feedback” on how they are working in Baghdad.

Hearing researchers say sound that loud and of that high a frequency — about 2,100 to 3,100 hertz — could be dangerous if someone were exposed to it long enough.

“That’s a sensitive region for developing hearing loss,” said Richard Salvi, director of the Center for Hearing and Deafness at the University at Buffalo. “The longer the duration, the more serious it is.”

Some of the Iraq-bound devices will be used by members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, both recently deployed to the western province of Al Anbar, a largely barren, predominantly Sunni Muslim area.

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