For a Non-Lethal Weapon, Israel Uses Sound

All Things Considered: June 13, 2005


Two weeks ago, the Israeli Army used a new non-lethal weapon to disperse a crowd of hundreds of Palestinians who were demonstrating against Israel’s security barrier. The army calls the weapon the Scream. The device emits bursts of sound that cause an overwhelming sense of dizziness and nausea. According to a spokeswoman for the Israeli Army, soldiers used the Scream after Palestinians began throwing rocks at the soldiers. And, the army spokeswoman said, the Scream could potentially be used this summer against Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip if they resist evacuation orders.

To find out more about the Scream and acoustic weapons, we’re joined by Malcolm Davis. He studies future warfare technologies at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Wiltshire, England.

Thanks for being with us.

Dr. MALCOLM DAVIS (Joint Services Command and Staff College): Thank you.

BLOCK: And, Dr. Davis, explain, please, how this technology works.

Dr. DAVIS: Essentially, acoustic weapons generate their effects by directing bursts of very intense acoustic energy–sound, if you like–at a target. Now this can either be a high-frequency sound, a very high-pitched sound, or it can be a very low-frequency sound to the point that you can’t actually hear the sound. And the effect that both weapons produce is to vibrate the internal organs of the human body at a certain frequency to produce nausea, disorientation, dizziness and that sort of thing.

BLOCK: And apparently the one used at this demonstration at the West Bank was the first one you described, the high-frequency…

Dr. DAVIS: The high-frequency…

BLOCK: …because it was audible.

Dr. DAVIS: Yes. Yes.

BLOCK: Does it damage the hearing?

Dr. DAVIS: No, it doesn’t, because it is directional. I mean, if you were close to it, it would potentially damage your hearing, but someone a hundred feet away wouldn’t have their hearing damaged. What they would experience would be this dizziness and nausea and potentially a burning sensation on the skin, and ultimately they could not stay for any length of period in the effective range of the weapon.

BLOCK: You said a burning sensation on the skin. Why is that?

Dr. DAVIS: It’s because of the–I don’t understand the physics of it myself, but essentially, from what I understand, the vibrations of the body under the effects of the sound waves heats up the body, and so after a few moments, you start to feel a burning sensation on your skin.

BLOCK: Now the spokeswoman for the Israeli Army said this would be completely harmless, only used as a last resort, and that it’s far better, say, than using rubber bullets. Would you agree?

Dr. DAVIS: Yes. I mean, sort of–if you look at crowd control, you can use tear gas, which is very nasty stuff and lingers on after it’s been used, whereas acoustic weapons, once you turn them off, once you flick the off switch, that’s it, the effect ends. If you use rubber bullets, as you well know, people can die from rubber bullets, because all rubber bullets are is real bullets encased in rubber. So it’s much better to use a non-lethal weapon that does not permanently injure someone and can be immediately switched off once the desired situation has been resolved.

BLOCK: And is it the kind of thing that you can adjust? In other words, make it more or less intense, possibly, depending on the threat?

Dr. DAVIS: You can, and that’s where obviously it could be dialed up potentially to deliver a lethal effect. But there’s no real justification for doing that because this is more effective as a non-lethal weapon. And the moment you start using it in a lethal capability, that’s when it starts to be able to be used in that respect by an adversary, and it ceases to have its effect as a non-lethal weapon.

BLOCK: Dr. Davis, what are the drawbacks of this technology?

Dr. DAVIS: Well, the drawbacks is that it’s a new form of military technology and, of course, some–it could be used by an opponent against us, like all weapons, so it has to be managed effectively.

BLOCK: The way you’re describing it, this actually sounds like fairly simple technology. I wonder why it hasn’t been used before.

Dr. DAVIS: It’s not simple. It’s simple in concept, complex in execution. In effect, what we’re talking about is firing acoustic bullets, bullets of sound, and to get the desired frequency, to actually project a narrow cone of acoustic energy over a fairly extensive distance, is what’s complex. And that’s the reason why it hasn’t been used before.

BLOCK: Malcolm Davis, thanks very much.

Dr. DAVIS: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Malcolm Davis studies future warfare technologies at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Wiltshire, England.

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