In the summer of 2017, reports started to surface of American and Canadian embassy staff—around the world, but especially in Havana, Cuba—experiencing a slew of inexplicable medical ailments ranging from tinnitus to cognitive impairment. These came to be known as “Havana Syndrome,” an opaque and vaguely defined condition that attracted substantial controversy over the last half-decade. No consensus has emerged as to its precise cause, but early official accounts broadly gestured towards the possibility of a targeted microwave weapon attack by a hostile state power:
Back in December 2020, a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) concluded that microwave energy “appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases among those that the committee considered.” Blame was alternatively cast at China or Russia, but while CIA Director William Burns once openly referred to the incidents as “attacks,” the CIA itself released an assessment in early 2022 indicating that the phenomenon was not, in fact, the product of “a sustained global campaign by a hostile power.” The sentiment was echoed by other intelligence agencies in a broader evaluation that concluded earlier this year. Despite a staggering degree of media interest, from a public perspective, the episode has remained confusing and inconclusive.
Before Havana Syndrome, there was the Moscow Signal. During the 60s and 70s, the American embassy in Moscow was subjected to an ongoing microwave transmission varying between 2.5 and 4 gigahertz, causing around 100 times the Soviet Union’s maximum irradiation standards for human exposure. The signal’s intended purpose remains officially unknown, but the prevailing fear of the day was that it may have been intended as some form of attack against diplomatic personnel. (There were more innocuous theories as well; for example, that it may have been used to remotely control surveillance devices that had been planted in the embassy.) Whereas the panic surrounding Havana Syndrome was largely public-facing by design, however, the Moscow Signal was kept under wraps for years—even from those who may have been affected. Blood work was reportedly conducted on embassy staff under the guise of bogus “viral studies.”
Just as allegations of a microwave attack have been widely dismissed in the case of Havana Syndrome, the prevailing conclusion was that the Moscow Signal could not have delivered adverse health effects to its apparent targets. There have, however, been a few eerie indications to the contrary. In her 2017 book Phenomena, investigative journalist Annie Jacobson reported that Veterans Administration Hospital (VAH) electromedicine researcher Robert Becker resigned his position over ethical objections to the government’s work around the signal. “Becker’s government work convinced him that a microwave signal such as the Moscow Signal ‘could affect the central nervous system, put people to sleep, interfere with decision-making capacity and induce chronic stress,’” she wrote. “He believed that the Soviets had been ‘using embassy employees as test subjects for low-level EMR [electromagnetic radiation] experiments.’”
One ambassador, Walter Stoessel, became ill in 1975 and later died of leukemia. That same year, Henry Kissinger privately linked Stoessel’s illness to the signal and stated that “we are trying to keep the thing quiet.” In any case, the details of both incidents largely remain locked away within a black box of intelligence agency intrigue. It is hard to know how to parse information that slips from actors with a political imperative to manage public perception.
Whatever truth lies behind these incidents, it is likely that non-ionizing radio-frequency radiation could, under the right circumstances, be used to discreetly conduct targeted attacks that resemble those hypothesized. We are bioelectrical organisms, after all, with electrically mediated nervous systems that are potentially vulnerable to external interference. The so-called “Frey effect,” first discovered by American radio technicians during WWII and later studied by neuroscientist Allan Frey, illustrates this reality: it’s possible to generate the sensation of audible clicks—and even speech—directly within the human brain by using modulated radio frequencies, and without the aid of a receiving device. It is important to remain skeptical of any information that originates from within the intelligence sphere, but it is also important to recognize that the limits of harmful electromagnetic radiation are in some ways poorly understood. It is not, in fact, inconceivable that the phenomenon could be or already has been weaponized.
Microwave weapons are a class of what are known as “directed energy weapons,” which the Department of Defense defines as an “umbrella term covering technologies that produce a beam of concentrated electromagnetic energy or atomic or subatomic particles.” This would include lasers, particle beams, heat rays, electromagnetic pulses, and sonic weapons. A foggy mystique has shrouded these devices since their earliest inception.
Fittingly, the oldest account of an energy weapon is almost certainly apocryphal: according to legend, during the siege of Syracuse in 213-212 B.C., the Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes devised a system of reflective mirrors that focused a point of sunlight with enough intensity to set fire to the hulls of encroaching Roman ships. Cobbled together from centuries of telephone-game sourcing, the story has been widely rejected ever since it resurfaced as an object of fascination in the days of Descartes. Still, the myth persists: in 2018, it was related by Trey Obering, a lead director of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton’s directed energy program, in an appeal to the federal government for research funding.
From the perspective of a state military apparatus, directed energy weapons promise a handful of theoretical advantages over conventional ballistics. They allow for a degree of stealth: they are silent, invisible, and often instantaneously impactful. In the case of anti-personnel psychological weapons, such as those purported to have caused Havana Syndrome-like symptoms, it could be nearly impossible to tell whether they have been used at all. Couple this with the fact that energy weapons are strictly within the purview of sophisticated state actors, and it is easy to understand how they also exert psychological leverage: how can one retaliate against an enemy that fights by undetectable means?
Partly owing to the innately terrifying prospect of an invisible enemy, workable energy weapons have long tantalized the empires of the modern age. The British Air Ministry created radar as a byproduct of their abortive hunt for a “death ray” in 1935; shortly thereafter, during World War II, German scientists successfully developed a sonic cannon that could induce vertigo, nausea, or death by vibrating the middle ear bones and cochlear fluid of its targets. Among the German Wunderwaffe—secret “wonder weapons”—captured by the Allies towards the end of the war was an anti-aircraft X-ray beam that resembled experimental weapons touted by the American military today.
In War at the Speed of Light, electrical physicist Louis A. Del Monte argues that contemporary research into “laser, microwave, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), and cyberspace weapons” threaten to “disrupt the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD)” that has ostensibly prevented the outbreak of direct conflict between major powers since the advent of nuclear weaponry. Still, unsurprisingly, it was during the golden years of MAD that practical energy weapons research proceeded in earnest.
The Cold War catalyzed untold new avenues of experimental weapons research, from DARPA’s mind-control projects to speculative inquiries into the possibility of leveraging extra-planetary asteroids. It is unsurprising that energy weapons found a foothold in this environment. In the early 70s, the US military deployed a sonic helicopter-mounted psychological weapon called “the Curdler” in Vietnam. In Northern Ireland, the British Ministry of Defense was reported to have used a weapon called “the Squawk Box” against left-wing militants. Mounted on a carrier vehicle, it produced an inaudible infrasound harmonic that could target individuals and produce psycho-physiological effects such as panic, vomiting, and seizures. Today the U.S. uses similar weapons, called long-range acoustic devices (LRAD), in non-lethal “crowd control” contexts, both domestically and abroad.
While the Soviet Union made forays into the possibility of laser weapons as well, it was the United States that undertook the most ambitious Cold War project in the arena. In 1983, Ronald Reagan publicly announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a plan to render MAD obsolete with a high-tech system to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles. Nicknamed “Star Wars,” it hinged on the development of space-based lasers that never came to fruition.
Nevertheless, the initiative notoriously played a role in convincing Soviet leadership that the USSR’s military economy could no longer bear the strain of attempting to keep pace with American developments. “If the said ‘initiative’ is put forward in order to make offensive nuclear weapons unnecessary,” asked a 1985 Pravda editorial, “why is it accompanied with an unprecedented building of the American strategic nuclear arsenal?” This observation illustrates a broader trend in ostensibly defense-oriented military-industrial developments—they also often advance offensive capabilities by threatening to disable would-be deterrents. (In a depressing echo of Cold War escalation, last year former CIA Director and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for the creation of a “Strategic Defense Initiative for our time, the SDI II” in The National Interest.)
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, plausible reports of military-scale directed energy weapon deployments have largely revolved around instances of U.S. intervention in third-world conflicts such as those in Rwanda, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These have included experimental microwave weapons, crowd control devices meant to disable communications technologies, and the Active Denial System (ADS), a non-lethal weapon that penetrates top layers of skin to cause radiation burns. As with remote warfare technologies like military drones, ADS in particular has been laundered as a “humane” alternative to kinetic weapons both overseas and in domestic crowd control contexts.
“Is it moral to us to shoot bullets at protestors on our borders who are throwing rocks at our border patrol agents?” asked Mary Lou Robinson, chief of the High-Power Electromagnetics Division of an Air Force research laboratory, in a 2016 TED Talk. “Or maybe would active denial be a choice that is more in line with our values?” To get a sense of what she is describing, take this testimonial from an Air Force spokesman who had volunteered himself as a test subject: “For the first millisecond it just felt like the skin was warming up. Then it got warmer and warmer and you felt like it was on fire.”
From whitewashing state violence to deterring would-be dissent, the foremost impact of radio-frequency weaponry has historically been in the arena of perception management. It is easy to establish that advanced militaries have invested billions of dollars into energy weapon research and produced some workable results, but often impossible to fact-check the actual bounds of the field’s putative capabilities. These weapons are often touted by the world’s military establishments, but their details are typically veiled in state secrecy. As such, they are surrounded by a paranoiac aura, as evidenced by the proliferation of conspiracy theories linking military lasers to California wildfires, or radio-frequency radiation technology like 5G purported to secretly power New World Order mind-control programs.
At the same time, the fact of their existence provides the military-industrial complex with a reliable canard to justify bloated “defense” spending. To this point, the long-running enigma of Havana Syndrome serves as a perfect example: in some sense it doesn’t matter whether the Russian or Chinese militaries have developed directed-energy weapons capable of producing such an effect. It would be virtually impossible to substantiate or disprove such a development without relying on decisive input from intelligence agencies. As such, they can easily create the illusion of a technical arms race—and an enemy that justifies ever-increasing military research funding—out of thin air.
As they remain secretive and exclusive to the domain of highly developed nation-state actors, directed energy weapons are best understood primarily as ideological tools—serving purposes of psychological operations, perception management, and public relations alike. Aside from provoking a degree of paranoia, they connote a flashy futurism, suggesting modern battlefields as sites of “innovation” and adolescent sci-fi fantasies made manifest. Weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and Boeing have landed massive directed-energy contracts in recent years, and they make concerted efforts to amplify their research in the field to the public. On-air military analyst and former Pentagon advisor Kris Osborn recently described laser weapons as “the future of the U.S. Navy.”
By now, the idea that Havana Syndrome was caused by a directed-energy weapon attack has largely been relegated to the realm of conspiratorial paranoia. Still, while conspiracism generally lends itself to dead-end doom and gloom, history can also find roundabout ways of vindicating the paranoid. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, for example—which featured the deployment of experimental microwave weapons to disrupt Iraqi communications—nearly half of America’s returning veterans suffered bizarre, chronic medical conditions, including joint pain, dizziness, memory lapses, headaches, and insomnia.
Even if the condition was entirely psychosomatic, or an overdetermined combination of the various toxicities that the war unleashed across the country, the idea that such a targeted psychological weapon might exist is less far-fetched than many have come to believe. At the same time, it is hard to deny that the public perception of a Russian or Chinese attack ultimately serves the endlessly fear-mongering appetite of the Western military-industrial complex. Intelligence agencies and capitalist government authorities have repeatedly proven themselves unworthy of blind trust; to the contrary, both for purposes known and unknown, they have regularly and consciously sown seeds of murky falsehoods, some of which have taken on lives of their own.
Directed energy weapons have been under development for nearly a century. But for the time being, their most tangible effects have been in fulfilling the incentives for generating public fears, attributing the powers of a demigod to the state, and supplying pretenses for ever-more expensive and quixotic military research. Insofar as they lend uncontested narrative power to defense contractors, state militaries, and intelligence agencies, the ambiguity surrounding their capabilities may be precisely the point. ♦
Evan Malmgren is a school bus driver and freelance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. He is currently working on a book about people trying to live “off the grid” in modern America.