But the military weapon, despite making its public debut a decade ago, has also never been used in operations, even though the Pentagon has already spent over $55 million on developing the technology. In 2010, the ADS was sent to Afghanistan, but it was returned to the United States without ever being used.
“It is still a novel technology,” says Marine Colonel Tracy Tafolla, the head of the Pentagon’s Joint Nonlethal Weapons Program (JNLWP), which is responsible for helping to develop the Active Denial System and other nonlethal weapons.
Col. Tafolla maintains the weapons “do not cause risk of significant injury, and are safe to employ.” Indeed, more than 7,000 volunteers have so far been zapped with the device and in March of this year, the JNLWP sponsored a demonstration of the weapon on reporters.
But Franz Gayl, the Marine Corps science and technology advisor, says the real problem with deploying nonlethal weapons has been bureaucratic politics. The current military version of the system is still too cumbersome to be used on the battlefield, according to Gayl. It takes hours to power up and is expensive to use.
Gayl, who several years ago lobbied to get the smaller version of the ADS to troops in Iraq, says the military scientists have wasted time trying come up with new-fangled versions of the weapon, rather than focusing on what the troops really need, such as a more compact version of the weapon.
The Air Force, for example, has been looking at the putting the weapon on an AC-130 aircraft, even before the ground-based system had ever been deployed. That really had no practical applications, said Gayl in an interview last year. “What would you do [with it]?” he said. “You shoot this beam at people and make them hop around?”
Military officials involved in developing the ADS have long acknowledged its limitations, but argue that it has still proved through testing that it could be useful in specific scenarios, such as at a checkpoint or to control crowds. The Pentagon is also working to improve the weapon, by making it cheaper and smaller. “We are investing in shrinking that technology down,” says Col. Tafolla.
Some believe it is concern about public outrage, rather the technology itself, which has stopped the military, and the police, from using these new weapons.
“I blame journalists,” says John Alexander, a retired Army colonel who once headed a nonlethal weapons program at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “When this thing first came out, they called it the ‘pain ray,’ and ‘human cookery,’ that is just totally not true.”
The ultimate question, however, is whether the military will ever deploy the weapon it spent so much time and money developing. In a 2010 report, Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of the US Congress, points to a disconnect between the nonlethal weapons being developed and the needs on the battlefield. Today, no military commander is requesting ADS for use on the battlefield, though Col. Tafolla remains optimistic. “There are needs it will fill,” he says.
Back in Los Angeles, Osborne doesn’t blame journalists. He says that those reporters who came to the press conference and saw the device reported fairly on it. He still believes that the key to getting this sort of weapon deployed is educating people about what it does—and does not—do. “The more ignorant of the facts someone was, the greater the likelihood they would respond to it in extremes,” he said.
Rather, Osborne’s frustration is with the government’s lack of resolve. “I invested two years of my life on that project,” he said. “I never did understand why the project was halted.”