Better Tools Along the Border

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January 14, 2019 | Originally published by Date Line: January 14 on


Innocents being used as human shields is not new. Placing police and security forces into positions where they are portrayed as brutal thugs in the media didn’t start with the recent incident last month, when tear gas was used on the Mexican border.

The battles in the summer of 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia, saw women and children being used as human shields to protect armed combatants. That tactic was lethal for U.N. peacekeepers and later U.S. Special Operations soldiers during the infamous Blackhawk Down incident where our troops were placed the no-win dilemma of either firing into the crowd or being overwhelmed. This asymmetrical tactic is not always lethal, but it is a cynical ploy to use images of innocents being seemingly abused by security forces to achieve political ends.

In 1996, some of us veterans of Somalia went to Congress and laid out the case for procuring non-lethal weapons that would be more effective and discriminant than tear gas or rubber bullets in dealing with this emerging threat. Accordingly, Congress allocated money to create a Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate in order to develop better tools. Despite that, our law enforcement and augmenting military forces on the border are still using riot control agents — better known as “tear gas” — against those who try to break the law by violating U.S. and Mexican sovereignty.

The personnel of the Directorate did their job. They developed the tool that we needed in Mogadishu and now need on the southern border, but that capability has never been employed. The tool is called the Active Denial System (ADS). It is a directed energy beam that makes a person feel like he or she is burning up by exciting the upper layer of skin. It literally feels like walking into a blast furnace. But, once the system is turned off or the beam moves off an individual, he or she suffers no injury or long-term ill effects. I’m very aware of what the ADS can do as I led the Red Team that tested the system by attempting to counter its effects in 2005.

Learn more about non-lethal high-power electromagnetic weapons and active denial technologies.

Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) TEDx Talk:  The Power and Promise of High Power Electromagnetic Weapons.

DSIAC Journal Article:  HPM DEWs and Their Effects on Electronic Targets.

DSAIC Website:  Articles on Active Denial Technologies.