Active Denial System

The Search For New Hi-Tech Weaponry Brings Defense Dollars To Local Labs And A Few Ethical Questions As Well

Leslie Clark
15 min read
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Follow the bare, concrete lined walls in the basement of the University of New Mexico Engineering Building and you'll find the signs forbidding anyone to enter the laboratory of Professor Edl Schamiloglu without proper authorization. Due to X-ray generation and high voltage safety, researchers and students who work there are required to wear a radiation badge, just like people who work in comparable science facilities.

It's common practice for UNM laboratories to restrict access for myriad reasons, such as the presence of volatile chemicals or lasers. In Dr. Schamiloglu's case, his research has led to generating intense blasts of electromagnetic waves in the microwave frequency for what is known in military parlance as the perfect weapon. In other words, his research has been utilized by military labs to develop what has been called the E-bomb.

“My group, because of its sustained technical accomplishments, has a reputation for its technical excellence in the field of intense electron beam driven sources of electromagnetic energy,” explains Schamiloglu. “E-bomb might sound sexy, but we have no E-bombs.”

At UNM, the professor and his students use electron beam accelerators to conduct experiments to convert electron kinetic energy to electromagnetic radiation. In usual scholarly fashion, they employ computer simulations and analytical modeling with their experiments to test hypotheses. As one would expect, it is technical work, where the findings eventually aim to be published in scholarly journals.

“There are researchers in the world that are interested in developing High Power Microwaves weapons for electronic attack applications,” says Schamiloglu. “However, these researchers work in classified facilities in the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and other government laboratories. The only way we contribute to their activities is if one of these researchers happens to read one of our scholarly articles and finds the information useful to his or her work.”

Regardless of the purpose of academic compared to military research, the federal government's E-bomb application hopes to create currents powerful enough to melt circuitry without causing injury to people. If detonated close enough, the E-bomb could shut down electrical grids and communications systems and stop vehicles with electronic control systems. Just how destructive the E-bomb is depends on the strength of its source, the altitude it's fired from and how far away it is from the target.

The People Zapper

Recently, the Pentagon announced the possible use of a low energy variation of the E-bomb in Iraq. The weapon, called “the sheriff,” was developed at Albuquerque's Kirtland Air Force Base as part of the Air Force Lab's Active Denial System. It's important to note that the design employs a different form of electromagnetic technology than what is being researched at UNM.

Still, the weapon, which looks like a backyard satellite dish, would be mounted on an armored Humvee and used to stop advancing adversaries by generating high frequency radiation in small doses. The technology has been referred to in the press as a “non-lethal people zapper” to be used as a crowd control device, one that in theory would have been a useful deterrent in a case similar to the “Blackhawk down” incident in Somalia in 1995.

An Air Force Fact Sheet says the Active Denial System “projects a focused, speed-of-light millimeter wave energy beam to induce an intolerable heating sensation on an adversary's skin and cause that individual to be repelled without injury.”

According to, military and civilian employees have volunteered to be subjected to the device during experimental trials conducted at Kirtland. “All testing is being conducted with strict observance of the procedures, laws and regulations governing animal and human experimentation,” the report states. “Prior to participating in the program, all volunteers are fully informed of the purpose and nature of the tests and of any reasonably foreseeable risks or discomforts expected from the research.”

Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, a newsletter focused on nonionizing radiation technology, “says that possible injuries, particularly to the eye, could lead to stopping further development and actual deployment of the device—as the Pentagon did in the mid-1990s when it was trying to develop blinding lasers,” according to “The real question is whether it will go the way of the lasers,” Slesin says. “People will get out of the beam, but [injury to the eyes] depends on how much exposure they get,” adding, “the only people who are doing health research on the effects of electromagnetic radiation are the people who are developing this weapon—the Air Force Lab. They’re the only people who have any money in the United States to do research on the health effects, and they’re in firm control of the [safety] standard-setting process. That’s a clear conflict.”

Beyond this conflict, another obvious question arises: Where and when would such a device be employed? Martin Lee, writing in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, after covering a Pentagon unveiling of the project in April, 2001, suggests some possibilities: “Zap-happy Pentagon strategists envision using the Active Denial System in various operational settings where a small number of American troops or military police might be confronted by a horde of angry civilians. Border patrols, ’peacekeeping' missions, urban riots, and domestic disturbances have been flagged as situations in which such a device could prove handy.”

Kirtland Air Force Base is leading research in high-powered narrowband weapons, as well. According to Kirtland's website, whereas a typical microwave oven generates less than 1,500 watts of power, researchers are working with equipment that can generate millions of watts of power. Heavy reliance on electronic components in today's weaponry makes high-power microwave weapons attractive. High-Power Microwaves have a potential in command and control warfare, in suppressing enemy air defenses, and against tactical aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles, according to the website.

Compact, high-energy pulsed power is an enabling technology for many advanced weapon concepts. The Kirtland facility is designed to play a major role in the Air Force Research Laboratory’s development of next generation, high-energy pulsed-power devices, along with assistance from military contractor Raytheon Corporation.

Brief History of Campus Militarization

Funding military research on college campuses and universities is certainly nothing new to the American system, according to Darwin Bond-Graham. Bond-Graham is a research associate for the Los Alamos Study Group in Albuquerque and a graduate student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He includes the history of militarism of colleges and universities as part of his study.

During World War I universities were converted into quasi-military institutes used for training and housing cadets, according to Bond-Graham. Then, in World War II, universities became research centers for the military. “They weren't cranking out young men and women to go fight wars, they were cranking out scientific projects—the atomic bomb is the big one,” he said.

Bond-Graham found a spike in research funding on campuses during the Korean War and during the Vietnam War, as well. In the '70s and '80s what became especially important for the military/industrial complex—a euphemism for defense corporations contracting with the federal government—was the recruitment of intelligence officers on college campuses. “So you had the CIA and others recruiting people out of political science and area studies,” Bond-Graham said. “Like you have a Russian studies department or a Latin America studies department that are intimately tied in with the national security state and its need to understand other parts of the world, their cultures, and how to basically deal with foreign relations.”

The important thing to keep in mind, Bond-Graham said, is that the history of militarized science is constantly evolving on American campuses and is not just a Cold War phenomenon.

More Military Contracts for UNM

Professor Schamiloglu's initial research into sources of high power microwaves was funded by the Air Force Office of Scientic Research in the early '90s, but received a large boost through a $1.5 million Multidisciplinary University Initiative (MURI) grant from the Department of Defense in 1994, then a $5 million MURI grant on compact compulsed power in 2001. His research grants, however, are not awarded in partnership with Kirtland, but come from the AFOSR in Washington. According to Schamiloglu's website, his research is also funded by Sandia National Labs and the federal Defense Threats Reduction Agency (DTRA). In fact, UNM's Institute for Infrastructure Surety was founded after receiving funding from DTRA.

This summer, the University of New Mexico announced Physics and Astronomy Professor Mansoor Sheik-Bahae's award of more than $3 million dollars over the next three years from the Department of Defense's MURI program, as well. Sheik-Bahae will spearhead research into laser cooling. The process lowers the temperature of a solid by shining a laser on it. The project grew from collaboration with Los Alamos National Lab, which in turn promoted the topic to the Department of Defense.

Last spring UNM announced a $51 million contract for the first three years of a nine-year deal with the U.S. Department of the Army. University leaders touted the deal as another great opportunity for UNM to work with other research institutions across the state including the two national weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia National Labs.

Last month, UNM President Louis Caldera presented his goals to UNM regents for the upcoming year. Among them is obtaining more research contracts with the national weapons labs. Caldera asserts that military research is one of the fastest growing areas for all research universities on matters related to homeland defense.

President Caldera has been with the university just over one year having served as Secretary of the Army alongside then Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. Richardson, was instrumental in recruiting Caldera, with all his security clearances, to the university post for the express purpose of obtaining research funding from the military.

“It is just a matter of fact that much of the research done in the United States is funded through the federal government often through national security oriented agencies,” said Caldera, “but nonetheless has tremendous benefits for improving the quality of life in many other ways.”

President Caldera argues that the same research that can be used for military purposes can also be used for the benefit of society. “Frankly, a lot of that research we ought not to think of as war research,” Caldera said, “but really as research that prevents wars and protects human life and certainly the lives of noncombatants. That same basic research, yes it can be used for military purposes. It can also be used to fight diseases that we don't have cures for today. It can also be used to create new products and services that improve the qualities of people's lives. So in many cases it's the application, it's not what the research is.”

The Ethics, Morality and Legality of Military Contracts

But military contracts have their detractors, as well, who question the legality, ethics and morality of the University researching weapons of mass destruction. University of New Mexico senior Trey Smith believes UNM isn't working for a better peaceful tomorrow, it's working to make new, better weapons that harm or kill people.

Smith has spent the past couple of years researching military contracts at the university. He said a lot of this research that's being done has global implications. As examples, he cited different departments like the Institute for Space and Nuclear Power Studies, which gets millions of dollars every year from the Department of Defense.

“The United Nations has a treaty that every country except the United States has signed saying we will not use space for warfare,” says Smith. “But right here at UNM we're working on that.”

The international community is also concerned about the E-bomb and its consequences. According to published reports, the International Committee of the Red Cross is wary of “the sheriff.” The committee is worried the weapon could blind innocents, it questions the undetected side effects of the weapon, and is concerned the weapon could be used for torture.

In a recent open letter to the regents of the University of California, David Krieger of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation expressed the sentiments of many opponents of military research at universities. Krieger warns the regents that their decision has vast legal, as well as moral, dimensions. “In a 1996 opinion,” he said, “the International Court of Justice found that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be illegal if it violated international humanitarian law.” For Krieger it is difficult to imagine any use of nuclear weapons that would not violate these rules of international humanitarian law.

Research vs. Free Exchange of Ideas

Roger Hagengruber has recently come to direct UNM's Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan forum for social scientific research and education. Hagengruber spent more than 15 years in weapons research for Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque. He admits some government contracts threaten UNM's educational mission and academic ideals.

“The university by its nature is supposed to be the free and open exchange of ideas,” he said. “The advancement of our understanding of nature and of man at the most basic level and to teach and train the next generation. So anytime information is controlled or restricted, you have to look at it very carefully to decide if it's appropriate for the university. There will be cases when it may be appropriate, but in a general sense (weapons research) is not the nature of what you choose to do at the university.”

President Caldera admits that if some of the research done at UNM gets into the wrong hands, the results could be devastating. Still he is confident the university has a good balance in its portfolio of research. And both Hagengruber and President Caldera assert that checks and balances are in place to ensure the university's research is pertinent and ethical.

But oversight can only be effective if all relevant information is available, according to UNM student Trey Smith. “If you remember,” Smith said, “there was a big fiasco about how the president had to have a top security clearance to be chosen. Why does the president need a top security clearance?” Smith queried UNM and was told by the Public Affairs Office that releasing the names of the professors doing classified research would be a risk to national security. Smith said, “I think this is a public university. My tuition, my personal money is going to this place. It's publicly funded, and I can't find out what's going on on my own campus.”

Caldera argues that collaborations with the military and the national weapons labs provide rich opportunities for students. He said, “Whether it's on research projects we've decided to take on jointly or whether it's creating research opportunities for undergraduate or graduate or postdoctoral students, we both give students an opportunity to enrich their education to see new career paths that are available to them and to work on some of the cutting edge research that is changing our world.”

Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Pete Nanos has said publicly that UNM and LANL have a broad range of common interests. Nanos said LANL is looking to collaborate more with the university in upcoming years.

“Unfortunately,” counters Darwin Bond-Graham, “half of the federal government's entire funding for science technology, research, development and acquisition is paid for by the Department of Defense and branches within it like the Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Are we creating a kind of science that thinks about the world in terms of how to get along with humans, how to live sustainably, how to make peace and live on earth in a way that respects each other as human beings and the planet itself? Or do we have a militarized form of scientific knowledge? Which is what I believe we do.”

Bond-Graham points out that the military funding represents an enormous amount of taxpayer funds. “This is billions and billions of dollars.” He said, “It amounts up to a way of knowing the world in which it is dispensable. You can just kill people if you need to. That's what military funding skews scientific research toward.”

UNM as Military University

The University of New Mexico, in 2001, was the 11th most militarized university in the nation, according to Bond-Graham. In his research, Bond-Graham has taken the total research funding of a university and determined what percentage of that is from the Department of Defense. In 2001, 15 percent of all research funds at UNM were accounted for by U.S. military research funding.

“Do we have civil science, do we have science geared toward peaceful applications? No, we have a really militarized form of science in the United States,” he said. “We've had it since the end of World War II.”

Bond-Graham agrees that defense spending has a place at UNM. “I honestly feel that the military has a right to fund research in the university,” he said. “But equal to that no one has the right to dominate the university; no one has a monopoly. And right now the military and corporations are building a monopoly in universities—in funding and long term planning.”

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