China has presented Poly WB-1, a non-lethal ray gun that can be used for crowd dispersal, by making its targets feel like their skin is on fire. The US version of the weapon was shelved due to practical difficulties and the potential public backlash.
According to the authoritative Jane’s magazine, the WB-1, presented at the Airshow China 2014 in Zhuhai last month, has a current range of about 80 meters, though it can be expanded to 1 kilometer.
Using a similar principle to a microwave oven it incites movement in the fat and water molecules located just below the skin surface, making the target feel like they are burning from the inside. As soon as the target steps away from the ray, the pain ceases, purportedly leaving no damage to nerve endings and blood vessels, which are located deeper below the epidermis.
This makes it a viable weapon for crowd control, which was how the US intended to use its own Active Denial System (ADS) during its occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jane’s cited reports that China Poly Group Corporation, the secretive state-owned maker of the device, is developing a more powerful version of the gun. The upgraded version could be mounted on ships “which could allow China to escalate its use of non-lethal confrontation to enforce its maritime claims in the East China and South China seas.”
The disputed shipping lanes, which also lie over potential mineral deposits, have been the growing focus of external tension between China and its neighbors, particularly Japan. Numerous incidents have seen ships from rival nations come close to each other, most notably in the 2010 collision between a Chinese trawler and Japanese patrol boats, which led to a full-blown diplomatic incident between Tokyo and Beijing.
It remains to be seen if Chinese military planners have also learned the lessons from the trouble-plagued ADS.
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Although touted by the US military as a more humane means of crowd control than the traditional rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons, the radical weapon failed to gain acceptance. The extreme pain belied the military’s insistence that the weapon was not harmful, despite filmed public demonstrations of ADS involving journalists and senior military commanders.
There were also practical difficulties – ADS took up to 16 hours to warm up, or required huge amounts of fuel to be in constant standby mode, meaning that it was near-useless in dispersing the spontaneous demonstrations that US forces encountered. Despite its 250 meter range, it was reportedly also hard to manoeuver and aim accurately.
Nonetheless, a report from Breaking Defense last year insisted that the US remained “bullish” about ADS, and was also contemplating remounting it on ships, to use in such hypothetical situations as a crew of an oil tanker having to repel a pirate attack.
Russia also claimed to be working on a similar ray gun in 2012, though no photographed prototypes have been revealed to the public.
As for Poly WB-1, while it is unlikely that it would have been developed without instructions from above, it is unclear whether it has been commissioned by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, whose budget and hunger for new technologies has escalated in the past decade.