A speech by the Russian Defense Minister promising to modernize his army caused a firestorm in the Western media – which accused Russia of developing mind control weapons that turn people into zombies. The truth is more complex, but no less scary.
“The development of weaponry based on new physics principles – direct-energy weapons, geophysical weapons, wave-energy weapons, genetic weapons, psychotronic weapons, and so on – is part of the state arms procurement program until 2020,” Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov reported to President-in-waiting Vladimir Putin during their latest meeting.
Some media focused on “psychotronic” weapons – wonder devices that use energy waves to control enemy behavior, effectively turning him into a “zombie.” Several papers went on to speculate that these would be used internally against political “dissidents.”
While rumors of Soviet, then Russian psychotronic weapons have surfaced repeatedly for decades, not one has been able to produce a working psychotronic gun, or even explain what mystery rays would allow its owner to control other people’s brains.
Although it involves reading into his words (and military officials the world over often either overstate or try to conceal their country’s military capabilities) it is more likely that the minister referred to something more akin to infrasonic weapons. These unleash sounds at a frequency lower than the human ear is able to detect, or cope with. Previous tests have revealed that these weapons can demoralize their targets, and even cause brain damage. On the other end of the scale, ultra high frequency noise also causes severe discomfort. Perhaps, Russia possesses militarized versions of the high-pitched Mosquito emitters that have been used in the UK to stop teenagers (who are better able to hear them than adults) from loitering in public.
More alarming is Serdyukov’s mention of genetic weapons. These are commonly understood as biological weapons modified in such a way that they would target, say one race, but not another. So far, it has been difficult to engineer viruses precisely enough that they would attack only the enemy but none of your own side. Furthermore, these weapons are banned by the international Biological Weapons Convention – to which Russia is a signatory – and developing them would earn Russia severe censure from the international community.
Direct-energy weapons – such as heat rays – are another innovation that have been long-advertised but has seen limited action. Heat rays, such as used in the US Active Denial System deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, cause unbearable pain to the skin of the target, forcing them to run away, but are not intended to kill. They are often used for crowd control, but are cumbersome and take time to set up.
Meanwhile, lasers have been a weapon of choice for every military buff since at least Star Wars. While they are undoubtedly destructive, gathering enough energy to power one makes them hard to produce – rather than nifty hand guns, we are more likely to see giant missile interceptors. The cost of the technology remains prohibitive.
Perhaps the most terrifying category of potential weapons is geophysical – those that use the environment. For example, a charge detonated in a correct place could set off an earthquake or a tsunami, while chemicals released in the air can ground an enemy air fleet with a severe storm. It is unclear how far these technologies have advanced, but by their very nature, they are likely to unleash unbridled destruction.
So even without turning them into zombies, there are plenty enough new ways to disable or kill potential enemies. But bearing in mind their cost and impracticality, more likely than not, it is conventional rockets and bullets that will dominate the military conflicts in the next decade at least.