An Air Force military officer and a civilian employee at the Air Force Research Laboratory told AOL News at an industry conference here that the Active Denial System, which heats the top layer of skin via millimeter waves, was in Afghanistan for testing. The sources were not able to offer details on how or whether the weapon was being used in combat.
The weapon is designed to shoot an invisible beam of energy at people, creating an intense burning sensation that forces them to flee. The Air Force has called it the "goodbye effect." It has not been used before in military operations.
Defense Department representatives confirmed the weapon was being considered for use and did not deny it was in Afghanistan, but indicated it had not yet been used operationally.
"Consideration is under way for the appropriate employment of an Active Denial System," Kelley Hughes, a representative for the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate, wrote in an e-mail to AOL News.
In 2008, the Pentagon considered deploying the Active Denial System in Iraq, but the effort was stymied over policy concerns. Whether it will become part of the U.S. arsenal is Afghanistan remains unclear.
"It is my understanding that there are discussions under way about deploying an ADS but no decision/approval yet," Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, wrote in an e-mail to AOL News when asked whether the Pentagon's civilian leadership had approved the weapon's use in Afghanistan.
Lapan was unable to respond by deadline to requests for further clarification.
The technology used in the Active Denial System, which was developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., has been adapted to several different configurations. Lab officials told AOL News that the weapon sent to Afghanistan is a Block 2, a more advanced version that is mounted on a military vehicle. The lab is also looking at a mounting it on an aircraft.
Michael Kleiman, a spokesman for the Air Force Research Laboratory, declined comment and referred calls to the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate. The directorate's Hughes did not respond to additional e-mails or calls seeking confirmation of whether ADS is in Afghanistan.
An automated reply to an e-mail sent to Col. Tracy J. Tafolla, head of the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate, indicated he was out of the office until June 28.
The military's history of disclosing details about the controversial weapon has been mixed. After years of secret work, the Pentagon disclosed the weapon's existence in 2001, shortly before a news article was about to be published describing the device.
Though the Air Force says years of testing have proved its safety, in 2007 an airman acting as a test subject was severely burned. The Air Force later that year released a heavily redacted report describing the accident, which required the airman to be airlifted to a burn center. A copy of the full report later provided to Wired.com revealed that the lack of proper operator training and missing safety equipment contributed to the accident.
The Air Force has since said the technical problems were related to the earlier Block 1 system, and the training problems have been resolved.
In a phone interview, John Alexander, former head of the nonlethal weapons program at Los Alamos National Laboratory, told AOL News that he was not aware of the weapon's deployment, but that he thought it would be useful in Afghanistan for point defense, such as protecting a base. The barriers to deploying the weapon have been policy concerns, not technical problems, said Alexander, who has been a longtime supporter of the Active Denial System.
"Mostly the issues are the concern about publicity," he said.