Why are there sonic weapons and what is their impact?
Sound and sonic experiences associated with the weaponization of sound and its negative effects on human interaction fascinate me. I mean, don't get me wrong, but with all the weapons out there - why sound? In this blog, I explore current research on the weaponization of sound and its impact on human behavior and the human body. In my opinion, the weaponization of sound is designed to inhibit human interaction and can have a negative impact on the environment, humans and life. Unfortunately its effects on people, animals and the environment at large, continues to be an under-researched field with little information available on its impacts.
The ability to weaponize sound through multiple methods and technologies has been researched and explored across various disciplines throughout the past fifty or so years. Davison (2009) reviews the associated United States military research programs for non-lethal acoustic weapons programs developed since the 1970s and argues that most non-lethal acoustic weapons deliver very high or very low levels of audio frequencies to exert a physiological effect, without permanently damaging hearing. Goodman (2010) drew upon transdisciplinary methods in science, fiction, pop-culture, philosophy, aesthetics and religion to present an extensive evolution of the potential politicization and militarization of sound weaponization, from the big bang some 13 billion years ago, to holosonic control in the future year of 2039. Brehm and de Courcy Wheeler (2018) update the literature on acoustic weapons with particular reference to the 2016 acoustic attack on the US Embassy in Cuba that caused serious health problems.
So, what are sound/sonic weapons? And how do they affect humans and their interaction in an environment? There are multiple ways to weaponize sound. Steve Goodman opens his book Sonic Warfare with the figure that shows the thresholds of human hearing, presented in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1 The impacts of sound waves on humans
Source: Goodman (2010)
Figure 1 shows that humans can hear frequencies typically in the range of 20 – 20,000 Hertz. However, soundwaves outside the hearing range can affect the human body, specifically infrasonic sound below 20 Hertz is inaudible, however the biological impacts on humans can range from nausea, organ resonance and respiration inhibition. Ultrasonic attacks create neuro-affective impacts on humans. Pain is experienced by humans typically above 100-120 decibels, see Goodman (2010).
For sound in the human range of hearing, the sound wave’s amplitude is a factor for potential weaponization. Notable uses include noise attacks and sound bombs used by the Israeli military in 2005. In the attack, air force jets created dozens of sonic booms by breaking the sound barrier at low altitude, at night. The stated intention for the sonic attacks were to break support for armed Palestinian groups “without hurting civilians”. The Palestinian health ministry noted that the sonic attacks led to miscarriages and heart problems, and the United Nations noted that it caused panic attacks in children, see McGreal (2005).
Another weapon specifically designed to weaponize sound are Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) and have undergone extensive development deployed by the military and police in the United States and are available in Finland. LRADs, also known as sonic canons, are loud far-reaching weapons of sound and have a range of 8.9 km and a maximum of 162 Decibels at one meter. The LRAD was initially developed by the American Corporation designed to emit a sound beam at 30 degrees at a high frequency (2.5k Hz), See Corbett (2009). While LRADs aim to disperse crowds and support non-lethal law enforcement, they are also used in mass communication and have positive applications in disaster management and fire rescue, see Finnprotec.
There are examples of infrasonic and ultrasonic weaponization. The Chinese Academy of Scientists developed the infrasonic “sonic gun” used to disperse crowds and rioters by deploying large soundwaves through an LRAD below 20 hertz. Humans feel the soundwave and are affected with vertigo, imbalance, disorientation, nausea and physical pain until they leave the area, see Chen (2019). On the other end of the sound frequency spectrum is a sonic weapon called the Mosquito, intentionally targeting younger people. The Mosquito works by “exploiting presbycusis - age-related hearing loss”. It emits a highly annoying high frequency tone between 16-18.5 kilohertz and is aimed at deterring social gatherings of young people. The Mosquito is sold across the United Kingdom, available for use and online purchase.
Multiple research that reviews the state of acoustic weapon technology has noted that the impacts and effects on humans from weaponizing sound remain under researched. Brehm and de Courcy Wheeler (2018) noted that there is a “lack of reliable, scientifically sound and peer-reviewed data on the specifications and effects of acoustic devices”. Pederson-Giles (2020) further noted that the lack of research on the intersection of theory and practice of sonic devices needs attention. The reason noted was that most studies researching the biological effect of a sonic device are carried out in controlled environments with an intense but very short-term focus and therefore, the impacts of sonic devices on the environment over time, in addition to individuals affected by sonic devices, would improve the understanding of the physiological and behavioral effects on humans.
As new technology evolves, new sonic weapons are likely to evolve though the research into their impacts on humans will likely continue to remain a low research priority. This is because the weaponization of sound is viewed as generally non-lethal and the technologies that can be used in sound weaponization can be equally deployed to save lives and communicate with people on mass.
Brehm, Maya & de Courcy Wheeler, Anna. (2018). Acoustic Weapons.
Chen, S. (2019) Chinese Scientists develop Handheld Sonic Weapon for Crowd Control. South China Morning Post. 19th September 2019. Retrieved 27th February 2021: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3028071/chinese-scientists-develop-handheld-sonic-weapon-crowd-control
Davison N. (2009) Acoustic Weapons. In: ‘Non-Lethal’ Weapons. Global Issues Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230233980_7
Goodman, S. (2010). Sonic warfare. Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge, MA.
McGreal, C. (2005) Palestinians Hit By Sonic Boom Air Raids. The Guardian. 3rd November 2005. Retrieved 27th February: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/nov/03/israel
Pederson-Giles, J. (2020) Sonic Devices Demand Greater Research. National Defense Magazine. 13th February 2020. Retrieved 27thFebruary 2021 from: https://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2020/2/13/sonic-devices-demand-greater-research