“Directed-energy systems could be used for crowd-control purposes. It’s not so futuristic anymore.”
– Lt. Don Kester, sheriff’s tactical-response commander and a chairman in the National Tactical Officers Association
L.A. County sheriff’s Cmdr. Sid Heal bore-sights the “Silent Guardian.” Raytheon Missile Systems calls the weapon “truly non-lethal.”
Police agencies look to Raytheon weapon
‘Burning’ beam of directed energy marketed mainly to the military
By Jack Gillum
A recent spate of violence in Los Angeles County jails has Cmdr. Sid Heal looking for a better way to quell disturbances, and a Tucson-made weapon may be just the tool he needs.
Heal, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, is looking to new “directed-energy” technology from Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems as a possible addition to his department’s arsenal against unruly inmates.
The weapons, which deliver a beam of energy that feels akin to scalding hot water but leaves no injuries, have been developed for use by the Defense Department as a “force-protection” tool for use on battlefields overseas.
Now, Raytheon says, civilian law enforcement — and “security organizations” — may benefit from the technology, which the company calls a “truly non-lethal system” for situations when lethal force “may not be appropriate or warranted.” While the final price is unclear, Heal said it cost his department $3 million for Raytheon to build a prototype.
“We have the largest jail in the world, with 20,000 crooks, and they all brought their problems with them,” said Heal, who heads the department’s Technology Exploration Unit.
Directed energy, specifically Raytheon’s Active Denial System, works by emitting a focused beam of energy that penetrates the skin to 1/64th of an inch, which produces an intolerable heat that causes targeted people to flee.
That system, which Raytheon delivered to the U.S. Air Force in September, has been marketed primarily to military contractors, spokesman John B. Patterson said.
But demands from the Los Angeles County sheriff and potential future requests from other agencies or prisons, could change that, especially if directed-energy weapons were to follow the path of Taser weapons.
Sales of Scottsdale-based Taser International Inc.’s X26, a popular stun-gun used in law enforcement, totaled about $17.3 million in the third quarter of 2007, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings showed. That’s up from about $13 million during the same period in 2006.
Mike Booen, Raytheon’s vice president of advanced missile defense and directed-energy weapons, sees his programs primarily as part of a bigger picture of military “force” protection — which is a departure from traditional munitions and missiles that the company has designed for decades.
“We’re trying to provide innovative solutions to the war-fighter customers,” he said.
Booen points to many potentials for such technology, such as defusing a terrorist attack in a crowded marketplace. Instead of firing traditional weapons at the target, he said, directed energy could achieve two key goals: neutralizing the enemy and eliminating collateral damage among innocent bystanders.
Paul Nisbet, a Raytheon analyst with Newport, R.I.-based JSA Research Inc., said the company could market those products to domestic law-enforcement agencies. But he said “it’s not something that is … likely to rival their military business.”
That’s because Raytheon frequently closes multimillion-dollar deals with the Defense Department, compared with possible one-time purchases of directed-energy weapons by domestic law enforcement, he said.
However, Active Denial isn’t the only type of directed energy product the company is making for possible civilian use.
Another, Vigilant Eagle, is designed to disarm a missile that would be fired near an airport at a nearby plane. That technology delivers a focused electrical pulse that disrupts the projectile’s electronics, rendering it harmless.
A few hundred Raytheon employees are working on directed energy programs, including Active Denial and Vigilant Eagle products, Patterson said. That includes Silent Guardian, a smaller version of the Active Denial system.
Use in Southern Arizona?
In the six years that Lt. Terry Engelking oversaw jail-response teams for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, he added several non-lethal weapons to his arsenal: pepper “balls,” Tasers, “stinger” rubber balls and even smoke grenades.
Why the wide array of tools? Because in the 16 years Engelking has worked for the sheriff, he said, “the violence has really increased” in the jails.
Since Raytheon’s devices are not mainly marketed to non-military vendors, it is hard to say which police departments are interested in new technology for their officers. And several officials in Arizona, including the Maricopa Sheriff’s Department, said they have no plans to buy versions of the directed-energy devices now.
Though Raytheon would not release specific dollar amounts on directed-energy contracts for civilian use, its Securities and Exchange Commission filings point to its civilian customers’ desire “to generate effects on the enemy rather than just eliminate targets.”
“This area includes directed energy weapons and information operations in addition to more traditional missiles and precision-guided munitions,” its recent annual report said.
An official at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department sees the benefit of such futuristic weapons, particularly for crowd control or other Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, responses.
“Directed-energy systems could be used for crowd-control purposes,” said Lt. Don Kester, a sheriff’s tactical-response commander and a chairman in the National Tactical Officers Association.
“It’s not so futuristic anymore,” he said.
Kester said he has personally looked at Raytheon’s Active Denial product for law-enforcement applications, although the Sheriff’s Department here still has not.
“We’re a progressive agency when it comes to technology,” he said. “The facts have proven out over the years that non-lethal systems reduce injuries to suspects and officers.”