News & Features » News




On June 25, 2004, the United States Office of Naval Research contracted with the University of Florida to study the "sensory consequences of electromagnetic pulses emitted by laser induced plasmas," which is longhand for research into an energy-based weapon that will cause pain. Part of the $514,000 study is to determine how much pain a person can endure before tissue damage or death occurs.

Think of such a weapon as a super Taser. Or don't. "I don't want to call it a stun gun," says Capt. Dan McSweeney, spokesman for the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate.

Nonetheless, the weapon, as conceived, would generate a pulse that explodes plasma – superheated gas – on contact, rendering the subject temporarily paralyzed. That makes the theoretical weapon a little like a stun gun, only more powerful and more painful.

A portion of the study, as detailed in a contract between UF and the Office of Naval Resarch obtained by Orlando Weekly, will be conducted at the University of Central Florida, under the watch of Martin Richardson, a physics and optics professor who specializes in laser technology. Calls to Richardson and the university's public-relations department seeking comment were not returned. An e-mail detailing a public records request for any documents related to the study did, however, prompt a response from UCF spokeswoman Linda Gray.

"The University of Florida (which is the primary investigator on this) has subcontracted with Dr. Martin Richardson to do some very basic research on a project for the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate. … The contract is for approximately $150,000. Dr. Richardson is not developing a weapon but is doing very fundamental research that has no immediate applications. He has not yet started the research."

Gray pointed out that UCF is involved in many studies that might have military ramifications, and referred additional requests for information and documents to McSweeney.

The study is part of a broader Pentagon plan to design nonlethal, next-generation weapons that paralyze without killing.

Nonlethal weapons are broken down into two categories: kinetic, which includes things like rubber pellets and flash-bang grenades; and directed-energy weapons. "None of these have reached fruition yet," McSweeney says.

But some are close. Later this year, for example, the military will begin assessing the Active Denial System, or ADS. ADS is an antenna attached to a Humvee that emits electromagnetic millimeter-wave energy, which triggers a reflex in those nearby to run away.

The technology being studied by UF and UCF – which could be put to use as early as 2007, according to New Scientist magazine – is different. Contract documents pitch it as a complement to ADS. "Many of the countermeasures that might be envisioned against ADS ... offer opportunities for `pulsed energy projectile` targeting," according to the documents.

The UCF study involves those so-called pulsed-energy projectiles, dubbed PEPs. According to New Scientist – which first reported on the study in its March 5 edition, and put it online March 2 – the PEP fires "a laser pulse that generates a burst of expanding plasma when it hits something solid, like a person." The article goes on to say that PEPs, in a 2003 study by the Navy, produced "pain and temporary paralysis" in tests on animals.

For military applications, the weapon could knock out potential combatants from up to two kilometers away. For law enforcement, it could mean an easy way to break up a riot.

"Pain is a primary component of all `nonlethal weapons`," says UF's statement of work, which is included as part of its heavily redacted contract with the Pentagon. (Florida's open-government law contains an exemption for this type of research, leaving up to the university how much they want to release.) "Pain can distract and deter individuals resulting in voluntary immobilization and/or flight. … Studies are proposed to determine the capacity of `text blacked out` to evoke pain.…"

As New Scientist put it, "The idea is to work out how to generate a pulse which triggers pain neurons without damaging tissue." But because the contract is heavily censored, it's impossible to know the full scope of the research. Half of the paper's bibliography is blacked out, implying that researchers drew on classified documents.

The military wasn't eager to publicize this study. It was discovered as part of an omnibus Freedom of Information Act request by Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project, a Texas-based watchdog group that examines advances in biochemical warfare.

"On a hunch, I decided to go after the PEP documents," Hammond says, "even though it seemed to fall outside the parameters of what we do."

He forwarded the document to a friend, who posted it on From there, New Scientist picked up the story, along with a few foreign newspapers.

Hammond says that some research on causing pain stems from work on alleviating it.

"For me at least, what's disturbing is grabbing a bunch of research done for keeping people out of pain, and using it to put people in pain," Hammond says. "What these guys are doing, they're trying to figure out how to make people hurt more. It's really pretty perverted."

Those news stories elicited fears from European scientists that the military was building a torture device. New Scientist quoted John Wood, a London-based expert on pain, as saying the researchers involved in this project should be censured.

"It could be used for torture," Wood told New Scientist. "The `researchers` must be aware of this."

McSweeney vehemently denies any such notion. "Let's cut to the chase, shall we?" he says during a phone interview. "Nonlethal weapons are an important emerging capability for the Department of Defense. Direct-energy weapons offer greater standoff range `and allow soldiers` to engage at greater distance. … There's been some speculation that `the weapon will be` an instrument of torture. I think that's ridiculous."

But Hammond points out something that is mentioned almost as an aside in the UF/UCF contract's statement of work: The PEPs could have lethal uses as well. "We might not just be talking about immobilizing people," he says. "We might be talking about killing people."

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club for as little as $5 a month.