CNN Claims AF Secretary Wants to Test Weapons on Protestors

CNN puts a curious headline on a seemingly innocuous AP story: “Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs.”

Wow. That right-wing SOB has some nerve!

Scroll to story:

Nonlethal weapons such as high-power microwave devices should be used on American citizens in crowd-control situations before being used on the battlefield, the Air Force secretary said Tuesday.

The object is basically public relations. Domestic use would make it easier to avoid questions from others about possible safety considerations, said Secretary Michael Wynne. “If we’re not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation,” said Wynne. “(Because) if I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, I think that I would be vilified in the world press.”

So, he’s saying that 1) “weapons” designed for crowd control situations should be used in crowd control situations; 2) that we shouldn’t use said weapons overseas if we wouldn’t use them for similar purposes at home; and 3) that doing otherwise would send a bad signal. Those statements are not only non-controversial, they’re obvious.

Further, he’s not advocating testing said “weapons” on American crowds, he’s advocating the deployment of state-of-the-art systems that have been previously tested as safe but effective in the type of situations for which they are designed.

Since at least the early 1990s, when it became clear the U.S. military would be engaging in peacekeeping missions on a regular basis, there has been R&D on systems that would minimize civilian injuries while simultaneously accomplishing the mission and protecting our forces. Global Security has an excellent summary page. Some highlights:

Non-lethal capabilities expand the number of options available to commanders confronting situations in which the use of deadly force is not the preferred response. Non-lethal capabilities provide flexibility by allowing forces to apply measured force with reduced risk of serious non-combatant casualties, but in a manner that provides force protection and effects compliance – ensuring the success of the military mission.

Political, diplomatic and economic demands dictate that future operations, where possible, minimize U.S. casualties while limiting collateral civilian casualties and collateral damage to civilian objects. Crowd control in conducting peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance missions is as likely a task for the Army as is destroying enemy armor and infantry forces in war.

This function is analogous to civilian riot/crowd control operations. Indeed, police forces use non-lethal “weapons” like tear gas, rubber bullets, and water hoses on a regular basis. If R&D for the military produces systems that can do the job better, if would be silly not to take advantage of them.

UPDATE: CNN’s headline did its trick, judging by these reactions from around the blogosphere.

Steve Soto thinks this could be a key Democratic talking point: “Cast the GOP and the White House as nutcases who openly talk about using American citizens as guinea pigs for weapons tests.”

Holden: “What a frightening, fascist moron Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne is. . . . I don’t recall Wynne protesting the US military’s use of napalm, white phosphorus, and cluster bombs in Iraq but now he’s worried about injuring enemy soldiers on the battlefield.” Uh, we don’t use non-lethal weapons on enemy soldiers on the battlefield. We use the oui-lethal ones for that.

Cernig: “Because, you know, the Bush/Cheney administration is all about inflicting excrutiating pain on Americans…and inflicting excrutiating pain is exactly what this weapon is designed to do. In testing, they wouldn’t let subjects wear contact lenses in case it fried their eyeballs!” Right. Because they were, um, testing it. Regardless, Wynne’s point is that, if we’re not willing to use it in domestic situations, we shouldn’t use it overseas, either, for crowd control purposes.

I should note too that the alternative to non-lethal weapons has traditionally been lethal ones. There is a mob psychology that sometimes infects otherwise peaceful crowds, especially if a couple of agitators/thugs/drunks get the violence started. Absent non-lethal means of dealing with a riot (or, as the legend has it, a single Texas Ranger) police have the alternatives of letting the riot get out of hand, risking innocent life and property, or resorting to lethal force. A microwave device would be much preferable to either of those alternatives, no?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    I saw this story on another blog and commented that the perfect test case would be the next WTO protests/riots.

  2. madmatt says:

    Tazer said they were non lethal as well and they have killed dozens. Now why don’t they experiment on soldiers, they are willing to do that with untested vaccines after all.

  3. James Joyner says:

    “Non-lethal” weapons aren’t necessarily truly non-lethal. As the Global Security article notes,

    Minor injuries can and will occur (bruises, stings, etc.) to individuals who are struck by payloads of Non-Lethal munitions. In fact, even if properly employed severe injury or death are still a possibility. Non-Lethal weapons shall not be required to have a zero probability of producing fatalities or permanent injuries.

    That’s not surprising. If it’s powerful enough to stun a large man hopped up on anger or drugs, then it might kill someone who is very small or suffering from a medical condition. Again, this has to be weighed against available alternatives.

  4. Cernig says:


    Regardless, Wynne’s point is that, if we’re not willing to use it in domestic situations, we shouldn’t use it overseas, either, for crowd control purposes.

    Which I didn’t actually take issue with, if you re-read my post. As you say, once you accept excrutiating pain as an acceptable crowd-control device then Wynne’s points flow flawlessly.

    The same would be true of using this device as a torture method which isn’t technically covered by the Geneva Conventions since used sparingly the pain would be real but no actual physical damage would be done. Bush administration officals already thought of that one too…way back when the first tests were being done.

    However, the part from my post you used takes issue simply with the first premise. That it is unacceptable to use excrutiating pain as a crowd-control method – against Americans or otherwise. Especially when, as the New Scientist article I linked makes clear, said weapon will also still fry eyeballs, even after testing, and give 3rd degree burns if the subject has any metal against the skin or is unable to move away from the beam’s path for any reason.

    It is a sadistic and inhuman weapon which is also unsafe by its very nature. That a senior military official is advocating its use against civilians is breathtaking, to me.

    Combining that with the snarky/humorous claim that the Bush administration enjoys all the pain – divisive, economic or otherwise – it inflicts on Americans was maybe too much for some readers speed, I admit. As you once observed to me about a post of yours that I misunderstood, not all such humor translates well from the mind to the page to the reader’s mind.

    Regards, Cernig

  5. Steven Plunk says:

    It seems that some want to limit our choices to lethal weapons or no weapons at all. Since many of these riot situations result in the rioters killing or being killed the non-lethal weapons could save lives.

    Good intentions are getting in the way of good policy. Saving a few from the pain of a crowd control device could end up killing others. Where’s the logic?

  6. Anderson says:

    “In testing, they wouldn’t let subjects wear contact lenses in case it fried their eyeballs!” Right. Because they were, um, testing it.

    JJ, I don’t quite follow your logic here ….

  7. Stevely says:

    Calm down before you get the vapors, Cernig. Do you have any familiarity with crowd control? Tear gas can be excruitiangly painful and has been known to kill, and riot batons can be not only painful but potentially lethal if not used properly. Non-lethal stun guns have been misused as torture devices. Face it, any weapon/ device that can stop an adult human being on a destructive rampage in his tracks will be potentially lethal if used improperly, and certainly can be “sadistic and inhuman” if deliberately misused. That’s why troops must be trained in their proper employment. Riot police and National Guard troops are trained in proper TTPs to avoid or minimize that sort of thing. No extra dangers here that are not faced with existing crowd control weapons. Nothing to see here, move along, except perhaps Cernig’s ignorance and bleeding heart on display for rioters and other destructive miscreants.

    This does remind me somewhat of the hue and cry raised after Gulf War I when it was discovered that Engineers bulldozed in some bunkers and trenches occupied by Iraqi troops, thereby burying them alive. This was denounced as cruel and inhuman, as if the other ways of dealing with those troops, bullets and high explosive, would be any more humane. Silly.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: My logic is that, when you’re testing something that is potentially dangerous, you take additional safeguards. The presumption, then, is that it is being deployed after being found relatively safe.

    Cernig/Steven: I don’t know much about the weapon, other than having seen some spot reports during R&D. I take no position on whether it’s humane. If not, then I wouldn’t want it used home or away.

    Steven: Possibly so on intentions/policy. It depends on the alternatives which, I confess, are outside my expertise. My presumption is that the experts have weighed the evidence and concluded there are riot situations when the microwave technology simply provides so much additional protection to police officers/soldiers and innocents compared to other alternatives that it’s worth the risk. That presumption could be faulty.

  9. I believe the preferred term is “less lethal” rather than “non-lethal” because you never know. You can kill someone with an aneurysm by hitting them on the head with a pillow. But I would not generally consider a pillow a lethal weapon and I wouldn’t consider a pillow fight a deadly brawl.

  10. anjin-san says:

    Of course rubber bullets are non-lethal. Just ask someone who has been killed by one…

  11. Anderson says:

    Okay. The risk to contacts-wearers is sufficient that they won’t test it on them … but then they’re going to use it on civilians who may be wearing contacts?

    Sounds like the CNN headline had it right–they *are* testing it.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: Well, no, they’ve clearly already tested it. The report Cernig cites is over a year old.

  13. Anderson says:

    I guess we’ll find out soon enough!

  14. Cernig says:

    James, they are still testing it, or were are little ago as May. And if the Air Force secretary wants to use it on Americans first, he’ll have to get a move on.

    DefenseTech reported back in May that the ray was already slated for a test deployment in Iraq but that they decided it needed some more work so it would cook people even faster.

    According to Bloomberg News, “Raytheon’s new weapon, which is intended to repel hostile forces by creating a sensation of intense heat on skin, doesn’t act quickly enough to be effective, said U.S. Marine Corps Col. Wade Hall, who directs the program that would test the device.” [Emphasis Mine – C]

    The device is scheduled to be installed on three Stryker transports headed to Iraq next year as part of a test of a range of new technologies [including sonic blasters and laser dazzlers]. If the problem isn’t fixed, the Pentagon will have to decide in the next few months whether to include it…

    DefenseTech also noted that the planning for an Iraq deployment for live tests was talked about as early as December of 2005. It seems that the 18th Military Police Brigade had requested ADS “to help ‘suppress’ insurgent attacks and quell prison uprisings.”

    I can’t believe that the Air Force secretary was unaware of all this.

    Regards, Cernig
    (What can I say, I’m one of those odd beasts, the Lefty Defense Wonk.)

  15. Stevely says:

    Who says the SAF wasn’t aware of this, Mr. Lefty Defense Wonk? He merely believes that it should be used here first before we send it abroad. Disagreement with the plans of the other services and/ or Pentagon agencies is not a mark of ignorance.

    (Though it is entirely possible he did not know… the right hand not knowing what the left is up to is a rather normal situation inside the DoD)

  16. Cernig says:


    Did Stevely just say the DOD needs to find a reason to use the pain ray on Americans before 2007 when it arrives in Iraq?

    I think he did…

    Regards, C

  17. Nomi says:

    It is alleged that directed energy weapons are being used experimentally on unwilling, non-consenting American citizens in actions that amount to torture and leave the body destroyed and in pain.

    There is a group that is composed of selected, targeted individuals of these weapons that is lobbying Senate and Congressional representatives in Washington, DC and holding rallies.

    There will be an article in the Washington Post Magazine late September or October, 2006, by Sharon Weinberger exposing these experimental weapons and the situation of the targeted individuals.