A prototype of the U.S. military's pain beam looks like a satellite dish. Eventually, a smaller system could be mounted to Humvees, planes and ships.

Photo courtesy USMC

The Basics

The active-denial system weapon is designed to transmit a narrow beam of electromagnetic energy to heat the skin without causing any permanent damage. The beam is sent out at the speed of light by a transmitter measuring 10 by 10 feet (3 by 3 meters). An intense burning sensation continues until the transmitter is turned off or the targeted individual moves outside of the beam's range. The exact size and range of the beam is classified, but it is designed for long-range use.

Officials report that the weapon penetrates the skin less than 0.016 inches (0.04 cm), not far enough to damage organs. Long-term exposure to light, such as in sun-tanning, is said to be more harmful than the pain beam. Some human rights activists have voiced concerns about possible damage to eyes, but military officials contend that targeted people would likely close their eyes before damage is done.

The U.S. Marine Corps is planning to develop a vehicle-mounted version of the system, which will be called Vehicle-Mounted Active Denial System, or VMADS. Future versions might also be mounted to ships and planes. The VMADS system might be packaged on a vehicle such as a High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV, commonly called a Humvee). A field-ready VMADS could be ready by 2009.