A sonic weapon is one that relies on sound to do damage or deter enemies, rather than traditional ballistics or explosives.
The US military has been working on sonic weapons since the 1990s, and they are now common equipment used to deter protestors.
Sonic weapons can utilize either audible or inaudible types of sound. The inaudible types are either ultrasound or infrasound.
While they’re used aggressively against political enemies or non-violent protestors, they’re also used to ward animals away from airport runways, wind and solar farms, and nuclear power plants.
Sound has been a powerful psychological force throughout all of human history.
It was utilised by the Germans in World War II: the Stuka Ju-87 was a dive bomber fitted with a loud siren called the Jericho Trumpet. The sound was terrifying, and was an effective use of sound as a psychological weapon.
A similar, if more sinister technique was used by American forces during the Vietnam war. They exploited a north Vietnamese belief that if you were killed far from home and not taken and buried in the family plot, your spirit would wander the earth in torment forever.
In a psyops programme known as Operation Wandering Soul, the Americans created a tape of wails, moans, and anguished cries in Vietnamese, which they ran through an echo modulator to sound like ghosts. This tape was known as Ghost Tape Number 10, and it was played from helicopter speakers in the middle of the night to demoralise and frighten Vietnamese troops.
However, modern technology has now completely weaponised sound with the invention of the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD).
Called a ‘sound cannon’, this device can be mounted onto a vehicle or operated by a single law enforcement officer, and has been in near constant use around the world since its creation.
They utilise infrasonic frequencies, which at high power can cause physical pain. It can also cause nausea, fatigue, and disorientation. The first LRAD to be utilised on American soil was in 2009, at the G20 protests.
These sonic weapons are utilised by the police because they’re non-lethal, a concept they’ve struggled with in the past. However, anyone within 100 metres of the LRAD will experience ‘extreme’ pain, and when used to generate high frequencies the weapons can cause permanent hearing loss.
Discomfort begins at around 120 decibels, permanent hearing loss begins at 130 decibels. 140 decibels would incapacitate someone caught in the blast, potentially making them unable to leave the range of the weapon. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the longest anyone should be exposed to sounds of 113 decibels without hearing protection is just 45 seconds. Being exposed to 140 decibels for just a second will cause permanent hearing damage.
They allow for rapid response to sudden problems. A single unit can weight anywhere between 15 to 320 pounds.
Whereas other systems might require special permission to use, or delivery from other areas, LRADs can be deployed quickly and easily.
LRADs are a cheaper alternative than other options, certainly compared to employing more officers or military personnel to patrol streets.
LRAD units were deployed during the Ferguson riots in 2014, where police turned them on civilians. They were also used at the women’s march in Washington in 2017, despite the fact that there no reports of violence, and no arrests were made.
LRADs have also been used by Israeli Defence Force to break up Palestinian protests, and by Japanese whaling ships to deter environmental groups.
There have also been mysterious incidences in China and Cuba, where people suffered intense discomfort while hearing abnormal sounds, which in some cases resulted in brain damage. In both countries, American diplomats or intelligence agents were among the targets, leading some to speculate these were government sponsored or supported attacks.
Sonic weapons will likely be refined and improved over the coming years, as global unrest continues to grow.
Traditional weapons in global conflicts are on the decline thanks to advancements in cyber warfare and missile technology. However, sonic weapons can be deployed without structural damage, and don’t leave any trace of the attack beyond the damage inflicted on the human targets. This would be greatly beneficial for clandestine operations, and will likely be deployed covertly to weaken enemy politicians or figures of interest.
In the meantime though, this kind of sonic technology will probably just be used to hurt civilians who do things governments don’t like.