Havana Syndrome Directed Energy Weapons and Contactless Warfare of Future
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 05 Sep , 2021

The Havana Syndrome and Moscow Signal

US Vice-President Kamala Harris’s flight to Vietnam was delayed by several hours in August as per the statement of the US State Department due to an “anomalous health incident” with similarities to so-called Havana syndrome.

The US government is investigating a series of such anomalous incidents in the Austrian capital Vienna where more than 20 officials have reported symptoms similar to Havana Syndrome, since President Joe Biden took office in January.As per BBC the Biden administration has announced a review of Russia’s “aggressive actions” and incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed during his confirmation to sharing more information about “Havana syndrome”. He also promised “accountability” if a state actor was responsible. New CIA director Bill Burns, a former ambassador to Russia, may also take a close interest.

Sometime in late 2016 the US Embassy personnel reported some unusual signs and symptoms which were later clubbed as the Havana Syndrome. Similar symptoms were observed in the US consulate in Guangzhou, China. The employees of the Embassy continued to suffer the symptoms for the next few years.

The clinical manifestation often started abruptly with the perception of a loud sound, pressure or vibration in the ear and pain in the ear or head. The symptoms were perceived only when they were in specific location and often seem to be originating from a particular direction. Other symptoms included tinnitus, hearing loss, visual disturbance dizziness and faltering gait. The later chronic symptoms included headache and insomnia signifying vestibular and cognitive involvement.

The most plausible cause was thought to be directed Radio frequency energy like microwares because of the location and direction specificity of symptoms.

The differential diagnosis considered were substances like organophosphorus or pyrethroids from insecticide spraying and infectious diseases like Zika Virus that was prevalent in Cuba those times. Psychological and sociological factors were also considered. The sudden abrupt onset, the location and directional specificity however made the diagnosis lean in favor of Radio frequency exposure as a plausible mechanism.Earlier in 1965 the US embassy staff was plagued the similar symptoms which were later called the “Moscow Signal“.After initially thinking it to be a viral affection it was later assessed to be an exposure to low level microwaves and triggered a study for behavioral effects of microwaves code named “Project Pandora” in the United States.The Havana Syndrome affected the US Embassy staff in Cuba, China and Russia and highlighted the possible effects of microwaves against humans besides equipment and electronics.

Directed Energy Weapons

Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) are systems which produce a beam of concentrated electromagnetic energy or atomic or sub atomic particles which can be used to incapacitate, injure or ever kill people or incapacitate degrade damage or destroy objects. These weapons are important because some of them have the potential to circumvent legal conventions covering weapons and weapon systems. There is little knowledge about them especially about the short term or long term health and environmental concerns about them.

 At present it is widely acknowledged that there are three forms of or categories of these weapons lasers, millimeter wave radiation, (commonly called microwaves) and particle beams.

    • Lasers: High powered, directed focused lasers are widely used in commercial technologies. Tactical lasers have been in use as antipersonnel agents but are widely prohibited and now used against military hardware, weapon platforms, UAV’s, and missile defense. However, as a “dazzler” they may be used to temporarily blind or disorient people. Moving from chemical lasers, to solid state lasers we now have the free electron lasers. Work is in progress to use nanotechnology to develop cheap portable military lasers. However atmospheric factors or disturbance are current limitations for accuracy.
    • Microwave Weapons: Military use of millimeter wave radiation to disable electronics in military hardware by portable systems has been widely developed. On humans they can produce intense heat on the skin without burning and have other notable side effects.Microwaves generate a lots of power without heat because of repeated short pulse (one giga watt of output power, 10 nanosecond pulse generates only 10 joules), making them a source of interest. They are less disrupted by the atmosphere as compared to lasers.

Microwave in the lower gigahertz frequency affect humans because of the Frey effect where the human head acts as an antenna for these waves causing symptoms similar to the Havana Syndrome. So the devices if placed at a distance can affect humans without affecting electronics. This is probably why their use or presence could be missed.             

    • Particle beams: These work more like kinetic weapons and bombard atomic or subatomic particles to the atomic or molecular structure of the target something like a lightning bolt. They are produced by scientific instrument called particle accelerator that are huge and costly and hamper their military utility in the present form. However, progress in nanotechnology and material sciences have sustained military ambitions in this field.

E Bomb: High powered electronic pulse and microwave technology is being used to produce E bombs or electromagnetic bombs as strategic and tactical Information warfare to paralyze the information processing and communication facilities of the adversaries. The “electrical kill” is much wider than conventional explosives acting as a force multiplier or electric weapon of mass description.In crucial infrastructures like power, communication, and transport which use electronic and satellite technologies the electro-magnetic pulse through E bomb has the potential to disrupt critical civilian and military operations.           

The clandestine nature of research and development specially in the military arena, emerging civilian dual use technologies that make these weapons use a possibility, lack of any comprehensive regime to scrutinize these development and consequent long term damage to human health and environment make these weapons a dangerous cocktail.

History of development of DEW

According to legends Archimedes probably used a series of mirrors to focus sunlight on Roman fleet during the invasion of Syracuse to burn their ships leading to a Greek victory. Organized efforts to develop DEW started in 1980’s with Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiatives (SDI) which was nicknamed Star Wars. While digressing midway USA focused more on ballistic missile, some secretive states like China and Russia maintained their focus on DEW. However, with the development of hypersonic missiles and the strategy of using swarm tactics of drones the interest in DEW has been renewed. The US Air force constituted a panel of experts to predict the future of the three DEW, Weapons, Lasers, Microwave and particle beam the particle beam are extremely destructive but due to atmospheric intelligence can only be effective at short range or work from space. The prediction is that these weapons would make space based war platform more viable and lead to a development of “force field” where interceptor missiles could be replaced with DEW. They would also be fundamental in dealing with hypersonic threats and unmanned aerial platforms.

The USA already has a laser Weapon system (LaWS) like HELIOS (High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance) for UAV’s and other surface vehicle and the laser based Short Range Air defense system SHORAD. It has developed a microwave source mounted on a missile called CHAMP (Counter Electronics High Powered Microwave Advance Missile Project) and a system called THOR (Tactical, High power operational Responder) to neutralize a fleet of drones using microwaves.

Advantages and use of DEW                       

Currently the adversaries can use the DEW particularly the lasers by two strategic methods.

    • Hard kill where the DEW structurally damage the target or destroy
    • Soft kill which causes disability or malfunctioning by a sub optimal use or dazzle and launch stealth attacks to cause peace time paralysis of operation without open hostile attack.

Current limitations are that of huge power requirements which can be supplied by say a huge nuclear powered naval ship. The second limitation would be of accuracy. But the race has already begun.

The various advantages of these weapons are that they (1) Engage at the speed of light (2) they are stealth like difficult to detect and intercept (3) have pin point precision while targeting (4) Multiple shots can be fired depending on power supply (5) More per shot cost effectiveness. Other advantages are that they are silent weapons, theoretically replenishable, have less deniability and can engage multiple targets.

They have already been deployed for UAV carrying explosives, and suicide bomber driven vehicles interception. However, there are future applications too: –

    • If all aircrafts can carry anti-missile DEW system, the entire fleet of aircraft can be “stealth” like.
    • On space based platform DEW can be used to defend against ballistic missiles as early as the boost/assent phase.
    • Space based defense against satellite attacks.
    • Defense against the next big threat the hypersonic weapons. The high speed cruise missiles and boost glide weapons atop ballistic missiles can fly at the speed of Mach 5 (5 times the speed of sound) or even faster. China is believed to be a leader in such weapons with the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) which is both land and air based system. The rule of thumb says that the interceptor has to have the speed three times that of the target which is 15 mach and higher.

The DEW operates at the speed of light which gives a huge margin for interception. So a space based DEW or laser system could destroy such hypersonic vehicles.

Future technological developments like “adaptive optics” where the weapon system could sense the atmosphere conditions on way to the target and use the steering mirrors to regulate the beam precisely to the target, can make them more effective. The rapid developments in the field of Artificial Intelligence computational power, thermal control, power generation can further reduce the weight size and power required (besides atmospheric condition) to operate the system and circumvent the limitations on use of such weapons.

The future: Plasma Weapons

Russia has already declared that their next generation weapons would be guided by physical principles never used before. Plasma is an exited State of matter of atomic nuclei and free elections (as is produced when the laser hits the target). The limitation for its use is creating plasma, and then projecting it from source of generation to the target and confine it in a shape on the way to the target in electromagnetic confirmed field and not loose heat. Typical star war weapon of future.

India’s Neighbor-hood:

China: China is fast gaining leadership in two of the new emerging military fields, i.e. hypersonic systems and the direct Energy Weapons. Recently, one Chinese academic from the North West Institute of Nuclear Technology in Xi’an won a National Science and Technology Progress award for developing a deadly microwave weapon which is extremely small and portable to fit in aircraft and land vehicles. It can be fitted on a drone or a missile and has a potential to disable the existing defense systems like SAM missiles, batteries, radars, communications and control system, tank system or even other Electronic Warfare System. They can be used as booby traps for enemy vehicles and even robots. It is similar to the microwave cruise missile CHAMP developed by the USA. China also has anti-personnel Gun Poly WB-1, similar to the US Active Denial System (ADS) that heats water molecules in skin to cause intense heat on target population.The gun is effective for a range of about 1 km and is known to be mounted on their ships in the South China Sea. Chinese ships of type OST have high powered Microwave gadgetry as anti-missile systems.

China’s DEW policy is basically focused on its maritime strategy. It is alleged that American pilots were targeted with laser in Djibouti in May 2018 and in May 2019 an Australian Navy helicopter was similarly targeted in the East China Sea, hinting at China’s will to impose its dictate using DEW if necessary, as asymmetric cost imposition. The Chinese use their maritime militia vessels rather than regular military one to escape responsibility and enhance it area denial, accesses limiting capabilities. China’s Anti drone system and silent Hunter is a laser weapon which has a maximum range of 4 km and can cut a 5mm thick sheet of steel from 1km distance.

Jin Canrong, of the School of International Relations at the Renmin University of China made a controversial statement in November 2020 that the PLA had used Microwave Weapons to dislodge Indian Soldiers from strategic heights at Ladakh which were “impossible to be thwarted conventionally ” by turning the peaks into microwave ovens. India however denied the news as fake. The PIB release of year and review 2020 MOD, said “Indian Army has maintained all protocols and agreement between the two countries while the PLA escalated the situation by utilization of unorthodox weapons…”. There was no elaboration of unorthodox weapons.

Pakistan: The Pakistani quest for these weapons may not at present materialize without a Chinese help but their then Naval Chief Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbassi spoke of equipping their future warships with directed energy weapons. Recent Pakistani attempts to get Frigates and corvettes from China and Turkey show that they would have sufficient power to utilize a directed energy weapon. Experts at the International Assessment and Strategic Centre, a US think tank believe that China can sell the direct energy weapon system to Pakistan along with North Korea and Iran.

India: India is geared and prepared to meet the challenge. India is working on DURGA II (Directionally Unrestricted Ray Gun Array) laser system to be integrated on multiple platforms. DRDO is working on developing future technologies in its various laboratories. India does not have at present an offensive operational platform but is developing these technologies in a civilian collaborative mode to help the civilian sectors. However, in the 12th Annual Air Chief Marshal L.M. Katre memorial lecture in August, 2019 Dr G Satheesh Reddy Chairman DRDO laid importance on the role DEW would play in future and how India should keep pace in the scientific developments. India reportedly also has KALI or Kilo Ampere Linear Injector,an electron accelerator for targeting long range missiles by emitting Relativistic Election Beams (REB) India also has 10 kilo watt – 2 km range and 2 kilo watt I km range laser system to bring down drones.

Counter Direct Energy Weapons or CDEW

Countering of the DEW would be difficult because of the advantage cited for these weapons. However, they may be neutralized:

(A)Tactically: By understanding the environmental limitations of the DEW specially the lasers and launch mission using favorable environmental characteristic.This is the cheapest way to do so.

(B) Technology:

    • Use decoy smokescreen, simulate environmental disturbance to limit the effect of DEW.
    • Use counter laser jamming to limit the tracking ability of the laser weapons as an active method.
    • Passive method like shielding using meta materials which are either absorbent or reflective. However, this may need many layers, make the equipment heavy and be largely dependent on the frequency of the DEW used.

More research and resources would be needed to counter the DEW’s of future especially in our neighbor-hood.

Future Contactless Warfare and India: A shift to Maneuvering from Attrition Warfare

Other than active militant operations the concept of modern warfare has shifted from attrition, towards tactical maneuvering to gain advantageous position relative to the enemy. The key would be disruption and dis-organization of the enemy by creating a “Turbulent environment” to over-stretch the enemy “observation-decision-action cycle”. The most modern form would include dazzling the enemy with sub-optional-disruptive rather than distractive DEW Weapons on one extreme to outright space base disruptive destructive maneuvers. The traditional concept of military “superiority” would mean little in today’s “geo-political” alliance based strategies and “Techno-military fusion” doctrine which goes well beyond the artillery conquers and infantry occupies” ideology.

A useful guide to the Future of DEW’s(Directed Energy Futures 2020, Visions for the next 40 years of US, Department of Defense Directed Energy Technologies) interestingly discusses three future science fiction Vignettes using DEW and one of them involves a possible future DEW conflict between India and China in the Himalayas. The drone attack on June 27th at the Jammu Air base and developments on the Chinese front should be a wakeup all.

The future for India lies in developing and fine tuning a layered defense which would include the traditional weapons and the emerging technologies of DEW and offensive cyber strategy women into a comprehensive C4ISR (Command Control Communication, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance). On the lines of the robust Chinese Civil Military fusiona policy should be put in place driven primarily by commercial interest to justify and reap economic benefits of emerging technologies of photonics and electronics with a tint of military unique requirement. The non-combat technologies like cyber-warfare and DE Weapons have already crossed their tipping point and would be critical in maintaining strategic dominance across battle-spaces in land, sea, air and space. India’s adversaries in the neighborhood cannot match the valor and grit of the Indian armed forces. The use of the DEW has to be seen in this background and the worsening of India’s security environment. Unable to match the gallantry and conventional combat capabilities of Indian soldiers, the neighbors would in future try and engage in contactless warfare and the use DEW, cyber, space and electronic warfare domains need to be seen from this perspective. Our adversaries would always try to be a step ahead in this regard to surpass the insurmountable valor and grit of Indian Armed Forces.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Sharad S Chauhan

IPS, Additional Director General of Police, Punjab

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