- - Monday, December 10, 2018

Innocents being used as human shields is not new. Placing police and security forces into positions where they are portrayed as brutal thugs in the media didn’t start with the recent incident last month, when tear gas was used on the Mexican border.

The battles in the summer of 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia, saw women and children being used as human shields to protect armed combatants. That tactic was lethal for U.N. peacekeepers and later U.S. Special Operations soldiers during the infamous Blackhawk Down incident where our troops were placed the no-win dilemma of either firing into the crowd or being overwhelmed. This asymmetrical tactic is not always lethal, but it is a cynical ploy to use images of innocents being seemingly abused by security forces to achieve political ends.

In 1996, some of us veterans of Somalia went to Congress and laid out the case for procuring non-lethal weapons that would be more effective and discriminant than tear gas or rubber bullets in dealing with this emerging threat. Accordingly, Congress allocated money to create a Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate in order to develop better tools. Despite that, our law enforcement and augmenting military forces on the border are still using riot control agents — better known as “tear gas” — against those who try to break the law by violating U.S. and Mexican sovereignty.

The personnel of the Directorate did their job. They developed the tool that we needed in Mogadishu and now need on the southern border, but that capability has never been employed. The tool is called the Active Denial System (ADS). It is a directed energy beam that makes a person feel like he or she is burning up by exciting the upper layer of skin. It literally feels like walking into a blast furnace. But once the system is turned off or the beam moves off an individual, he or she suffers no injury or long-term ill effects. I’m very aware of what the ADS can do as I led the Red Team that tested the system by attempting to counter its effects in 2005.

Unlike tear gas, ADS is tightly focused. The beam can be targeted on an individual or small group of rioters. A don’t-cross line can be marked on the ground with clear warning signs and announcements of the consequences of crossing. The rest of the mob can see what happens to the first few leaders bold enough to challenge the system. Then, word gets around quickly. A person must make a conscious decision to encounter the beam.

When then ADS system was developed, many of us who believed in its possibilities hoped that we could use a stronger version in urban combat to temporarily incapacitate everyone in buildings where armed combatants and civilians are intermixed by giving everyone inside a temporary case of heat prostration allowing our forces to enter the building and separate the armed elements from the non-combatants. The system does not violate the rules of land warfare or any chemical weapons convention. Hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian lives might have been saved in urban combat in Syria and Iraq if advanced directed energy non-lethal weapons had been available in the war against ISIS.

In the two decades since its development, ADS has never been used for either military or law enforcement purposes due to political considerations. Ironically, the same human rights advocates who object violently to the use of tear gas or non-lethal rubber weapons have been the greatest enemies of directed energy non-lethal weapons. Their reasoning is twofold. First, they claim that the technology could be used to torture a person who is tied down and cannot get away. That may be true, but why would anyone use a multi-million-dollar machine to do something that could just as easily be done with a 10-cent penknife under the fingernails?

There is also concern that the system could be used by repressive regimes against peaceful demonstrations. Any weapon can be abused in the wrong hands, but when properly used, ADS is much less prone to cause death or injury than riot control agents or rubber bullets. Some human rights fanatics actually believe that a few violent deaths can serve their purposes and that non-lethal weapons threaten their agendas.

The Trump administration should consider authorizing the mass production and refining of existing Active Denial System technology. A combination of improved sensor systems and ADS could give the president the equivalent of his proposed wall at a fraction of the price.

• Gary Anderson led the Defense Department’s Adaptive Red Team in the 2005 proof of concept test of the Active Denial System (ADS).

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