Hong Kong’s democracy protesters may be in for a nasty surprise in the coming months. The mainland Chinese have reportedly designed a sonic weapon that can selectively target individuals or groups in a crowd of demonstrators, leaving them unable to control muscle movement and render them easy pickings for riot police to round up.
The weapon is designed to be non-lethal, and the effects wear off eventually. That non-lethality makes it a perfect tool for controlling the kinds of protests that have driven the Communist hierarchy in Beijing to distraction in recent months.
Although the weapon is popularly described as sonic, it is actually based on “infrasound,” which is essentially the same type of science that surgeons use to break up kidney stones without using invasive surgery. Used on the body as a whole, it creates the same effect on the subject it is used on as a temporary case of cerebral palsy. It will have the effect of breaking up crowds in a non-lethal manner that the Chinese would have liked to have had in at Tiananmen Square three decades ago.
President Xi Jinping is probably not less bloody-minded than his predecessors in the Chinese hierarchy, but they had the home field advantage and could shield their actions from live press coverage of the lethal carnage inflicted on the demonstrators. Beijing does not enjoy that advantage in Hong Kong, where the eyes of the world are watching on a 24-7 basis.
In the mid-’90s of the last century, our Marine Corps was exploring a number of advanced non-lethal technologies as an antidote to the tactic of using women and children as human shields in combat situations that they had experienced in Somalia. The Marines examined infrasound in the the mid-’90s, but the state of the art at the time was omni-directional and animal effects testing merely upset the monkeys. Consequently, the Marine Corps’ experimental personnel put their limited money into other technologies.
After some success with using experimental non-lethal weapons (NLW) in the evacuation of Somalia in 1995, Marine Corps leaders convinced Congress to authorize a Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate. That organization concentrated much of its effort on creating a directed energy weapon called the Active Denial System (ADS), which would be very effective in Somalia-like situations. V-MADS has passed extensive human-effects testing.
Humanitarian concerns over the potential misuses of non-lethal weapons by despots has prevented ADS from being employed to date, and that has prevented work on more advanced systems, which could eventually have prevented the loss of civilian lives in situations such as Mosul and towns in Afghanistan and Syria where ISIS deliberately fought among civilians.
The argument made by human rights groups against advanced the NLW was that — in the wrong hands — such weapons could be used to suppress legitimate pro-democracy movements and other forms of dissent. Those of us who argued for including advanced NLW in our military and law-enforcement tool kit pointed out that neither infrasound nor other forms of directed energy systems was rocket science, and that the bad guys would get hold of them eventually.
Our argument was that the adult supervision provided by civilian control of the military and police would allow American forces to use tools short of mass destruction in situations where such action is appropriate. We were right. Malign actors now have the technology. The question now is: Where do we go from here?
Advanced forms of both infrasound and ADS-like technology have the potential to temporarily incapacitate all of the occupants of a structure where combatants and civilians are intermixed, allowing enemy capture and mitigating much of the carnage that we saw in places like Mosul, but the Pentagon is unlikely to spend money on weapons systems that it may not be allowed to use due to political concerns.
Meanwhile, the Chinese will no doubt use what they now have to ensure that the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Communist regime in China goes on without messy pro-democracy demonstrations.
It might be a good time for responsible human rights groups such as the International Committee of the Red Cross to declare a truce with the Pentagon and the defense ministries of other democracies and develop guidelines and protocols for the development and employment of the NLW. This would make the misuse of such weapons by the Chinese and other despots out of bounds of civilized conduct. The non-lethal genie is out of the bottle, but there is still time to set some responsible boundaries.
• Gary Anderson was the chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and the first director of the Marine Corps Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities.