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MOAB and the pain ray - Iraq's war-missing wonder weapons

Only the media were shocked, awed and pacified

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Five years ago, as we hurtled unstoppably towards war with Iraq, I was busy with an alternative weekly column called "Weapon of the Week." At the time journalists were being fed - and in general, were happily eating - a stream of marketing for the weapons and ideas that would make the coming war neat and painless. Well, we know how the main event turned out - but whatever became of the pin-ups?

And of the mindset and the people who promoted them? They weren't hard to track.

Harlan Ullman, the father of "shock & awe," surely now one of the most mocked phrases from 2003, still writes books as well as a column for the Washington Times. In association with the National Defense University, Ullman and a colleague had written the Complete Idiot's Guide to War, formally entitled Shock & Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance in 1996. "Rapid Dominance might conceivably achieve [victory] in a matter of days (or perhaps hours)..." reads one howler taken from it, something taken very seriously in March of 2003. But by April he was already backing away from ownership of the intellectual property, indicating in interviews that the Pentagon's "shock & awe" wasn't really his "shock & awe."

While he has continued to write on national strategy, few pay attention. In 2007, Deborah Jean Palfrey, a DC madam, named him as a client of her prostitution ring; his most recent book, America's Promise Restored: Preventing Culture, Crusade and Partisanship from Wrecking Our Nation had then just been was issued in paperback. "I have been a devoted student of Harlan Ullman for thirty years," blurbed Colin Powell for it. With hindsight, that possibly wasn't much of a recommendation.

Of the weapons MOAB, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, was the war's alpha bomb. The Air Force celebrated its anniversary a week or two ago as a triumph of engineering under pressure. It was intended, through sheer awesomeness, to have scared Saddam Hussein and Iraqis into submission. At 21,000 pounds, it had no practical purpose other than fright, and was so big it had to be shoved out of the tail end of a transport plane on a sled, a fact which ruled out its use against any enemy with a working air defense.

The MOAB's public test in the wasteland of the Florida panhandle generated a Brobdingnagian dust cloud that was televised worldwide. One fool in the Pentagon's TV newsroom jabbered gleefully about the MOAB's guidance by Global Positioning System. Great precision wasn't exactly necessary on the monster bomb, that perhaps being a hint that it had been put together by people of great vigor who lacked common sense.

But that's only one opinion. In Florida they're still enthusiastic for the MOAB, design and fabrication of which are considered the result of strenuous effort by weapons scientists over a period of three months, culminating in the roll-out test on March 11, 2003. Admiringly described in one Florida newspaper's anniversary story, the MOAB was "[designed] to sweep concentrations of troops and vehicles from a battlefield with blast and fire..."

It never made it, though. Ten MOABs were built, all of them hand-made because of the device's immense size. By April Fool's day in 2003, a few had been shipped to Iraq, but none was used. The war has lasted so long that the bomb's father, Al Weimorts, Jr., a senior engineer for the Air Force Research Laboratory Munitions Directorate at Eglin Air Force Base, did not live to see the end of it. He died in December of 2005.

The omega in our story is another weapon that's never done anything but win the hearts and minds of its handlers and the journalists commissioned to write about it after it had shot them. Just prior to the war, the Vehicle Mounted Active Denial System, since shortened to just Active Denial System, was ridiculously hailed by people in the Department of Defense as the biggest breakthrough in weapons technology since the atomic bomb. From there, it's been almost all downhill for the Hummer-mounted pain gun that heats the top layer of skin with millimeter waves.

It had been hoped that the ADS, nicknamed The Sheriff, would arrive in Iraq in time to aid pacification and occupation operations. But a peculiar thing happened.

In their quest for publicity, the weapon's minders worked out a system whereby reporters would be given the opportunity to be burned and awed by it in return for cheerleading notices. The practice worked but not in the way ADS pushers had hoped. Many stories, all glowing, were generated. But at the same time, the US gained a world reputation as a nation that tortures prisoners. This cognitive dissonance erased the value of the ADS publicity scheme. A Hummer-mounted ray gun that agonizes people, even if only non-lethally, is seen as a potential instrument of America-style torture, one aimed at unarmed foreigners.

Since the beginning of the Iraq war, the ADS has been regularly promised and every year it has failed to show, left to languish by Pentagon men who probably don't want to see their careers go down in flames over it. Moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, the ADS has had progressively less money devoted to it, a sign that at least a part of the DoD wishes it would go away. Its liabilities include factors ranging from possible foreign public relations nightmare to its being recently described on "60 Minutes" as against the ingrained culture of a military that wants weapons which kill people as fast as possible.

The Air Force resorted to something of a Hail Mary pass for it earlier this month, farming the ADS out to "60 Minutes" where, as usual, it was described as a wonder weapon, one that could have solved a multitude of big woes that are now water under the bridge, like the blasting of Fallujah. "Pentagon officials call it a major breakthrough which could change the rules of war and save huge numbers of lives in Iraq," claimed CBS News' David Martin. Like many who had so bravely gone before him, Martin allowed himself to be shot by the ADS in return for a puff piece explaining that the reason it wasn't already in Iraq saving lives was because of lack of proper backbone among Pentagon leaders.

In five years of war, the ADS became politically untenable. "You don't ever, ever, ever want a system like this to be thought of as a torture weapon," Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Sue Payton told "60 Minutes." Payton also told the news operation she "loved" the ADS and "started giggling" after being shot by it, adding another negative - a whiff of craziness - to the stigma of the pain ray.

Since the war began, few ADS stories have been complete without indication that it was going to Iraq soon. This time it's for summer fun. The bright side is that if it continues true to form, it's just another in a five year-long list of assorted threats and promises never quite delivered as billed. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.

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