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Pentagon gets heat ray, version 2

Raytheon says its upgraded Active Denial System 2 is now in the hands of the customer, the U.S. Air Force. But will it ever be deployed?

The heat rays go marching one by one by...well, that's about it for now.

Raytheon said Tuesday that its Active Denial System 2 is now in the hands of the customer, the U.S. Air Force. Should it ever get beyond the evaluation stage, the ADS technology could be one of the very first directed-energy weapons fielded by the military. It looks like a satellite dish, works something like a microwave, and isn't supposed to cause any lasting harm.

Active Denial System
Active Denial System 2 has been delivered to the U.S. Air Force. Raytheon

What it's intended to do is beam short bursts of millimeter waves (which are smaller than the better-known microwaves) at a suspicious or unruly target--a crowd gathered outside a U.S. embassy, say--and make make the recipients scatter because they can't stand the heat. Literally. The ADS, which operates at 95GHz, causes an intense but skin-deep burning sensation that lasts only as long as a person is in the way of the beam, which in tests so far has been a matter of just a few seconds at most.

Version 2 is an upgrade of the earlier system. It's bigger, more rugged and handles warmer atmospheric temperatures better, Raytheon says. And that version number is also pretty much the number of the systems that have been built so far: Raytheon has tallied up just one unit in each of the phases. ADS 0 was the initial technology demonstrator, and ADS 1 was mounted on a Humvee for further tests and for public demonstrations. ADS 2 is designed to be mounted on a variety of vehicles or to operate from a fixed site.

What happens next with ADS 2 is up to the Pentagon, specifically its Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program, for which the Air Force is the lead service. But the decisions on when, how and even whether to deploy are political as much as they are technical--ADS may be nonlethal, but the Pentagon surely isn't eager to see headlines like "U.S. fries protesters with energy weapon."

Raytheon, meanwhile, has a smaller version called Silent Guardian, at one-third the size and one-third the power, that it says is available to interested buyers. Better hurry, though. There's just one of these, too.