Thursday, January 21, 2016

10 Top Secret Weapons You’ve Never Heard Of

First things first – when we say ‘top secret’ here, we can be forgiven for being a little facetious. After all, some of the weird and wonderful projects in this article date back to World War II, and security clearance tends not to be an issue for seventy-year-old military secrets.

But just in case you consider it impossible for a pop culture website to have access to information on a genuinely top secret weapons programme, we should point out that in 2013, around four million people were considered to have top secret security clearance in the United States alone, including half a million private contractors. That’s a whole lot of potential whistleblowers with a broadband connection and a Reddit account.

This article doesn’t represent an exhaustive list, or a top ten: we’ve compiled a selection of military programmes, some modern, some a little more old school; some successful, some utter failures, and some still in the final stages of development.

The main criterion for inclusion is that they raise an eyebrow or two. After all, we like to think we know how the world works… but some of these classified projects are a little out there. We skipped over the Russian initiative for using exploding dogs to take out tanks in World War II, poor little blighters. We elected to ignore rumours of the years of R&D that went into the so-called ‘gay bomb’, due to lack of corroborating evidence. Others… well, see for yourselves.

10. The Luftfaust
Some of the finest scientists and engineers in the world worked for the Third Reich around the time of World War II. This isn’t some revisionist history: Operation Paperclip, in which the post-war USA co-opted hundreds of the world’s top technical wizards to come and work in America, is a matter of public record, as is the USSR’s version of the programme, Operation Osoaviakhim.

Back in the day, the Nazi secret weapons projects tend to be bracketed under the catch-all term Wunderwaffe: literally, ‘wonder-weapon’. This would cover a multitude of sins, from light artillery to military vehicles of all shapes and sizes to huge cannons to far more esoteric paraphernalia.

The Fliegerfaust B, also known as the Lufthaust (literally, ‘air fist’), was a prototype for a portable ground-to-air rocket launcher trialled by the Nazi after 1944, designed to take out enemy planes attacking targets on the ground. An improvement on the Fliegerfaust A, the Lufthaust was a metre and a half long, weighed 6.5 kg and had nine (9) barrels instead of the usual one.

Opinions vary as to the operation of the weapon, with some determining that the missiles would be fired in two staggered bursts, and others saying that all of the missiles would be fired separately with a two-second space between each, for a more staccato effect.

The Luftfaust didn’t have an impressive effective range, which is quite important for a weapon intended to bring down aircraft. As far as we know, only eighty were ever used in proper trials, despite the Nazi war machine ordering thousands of them in the final months of the war, including ammunition into the millions. Still, if you saw a platoon of men hoving into view each carrying one of these, you’d probably curl into the foetal position until they went away again.

9. Advanced Hypersonic Weapons
David Neyland, DARPA
Within the programme known as PGS (Prompt Global Strike), the development of the advanced hypersonic weapon is groundbreaking stuff. That’s the programme dedicated to precision delivery of a payload via an airstrike anywhere in the world, within a single hour. The idea is that eventually they’ll achieve a speed of up to Mach 24, heading in on a flat, low trajectory to prevent the enemy mistaking the missile for a nuclear assault.

A properly designed and executed PGS would allow its operators to respond to rapidly changing circumstances worldwide, without the need to mobilise conventional forces. Of course, another application would be the capability to use the advanced hypersonic weapon during a nuclear conflagration.

The first AHW in the US PGS initiative (these things sound like pro wrestling promotions) was successfully tested in November 2011, launching from a facility in Hawaii to the test site 2,300 miles away in less than half an hour. To give you an idea: the current fastest cruise missile on earth is the Russian/Indian BrahMos, able to fly at speeds up to and around Mach 3 and considered to be a supersonic weapon. The hypersonic delivery system being tested, on the other hand, would have a minimum of twice as fast as that.

8. Sonic Weaponry
Already being used as crowd control devices, the sonic weapon covers a broad range of devices to achieve a multitude of potential effects. The highest of high-power sound waves is capable of causing serious damage to the eardrums, while the more sedate version would only cause discomfort like nausea or lack of equilibrium.

It’s been whispered for ages that an ultrahigh frequency will cause teenagers (and only teenagers) to feel extreme discomfort: apparently the ears begin to fail after the age of twenty, and the noise will only affect the young. On the other hand, the infamous ‘brown note’ is said to force an involuntary bowel movement in the target. These are extra-aural effects: physical manifestations of sound waves on a biological target.

Other such effects include muscle contraction, hypothermia and issues with the lungs. The poor mice that various sonic devices have been tested on over the years have had damage caused to their internal organs at around 184 decibels. Mammals engaged in deep sea diving can also suffer similar effects from high intensity, low frequency sound: it passes easily through water into their bodies, but not so easily through the large gas-filled spaces in those bodies, like the lungs and sinuses.

7. The Pulsed Energy Projectile Gun
Orbital ATK
Involving the creation of a pulsed infrared laser that reacts with the surface of a target to cause the appearance of a tiny amount of explosive plasma and a corresponding pressure wave, which would knock the target off his feet. There would also be corresponding electromagnetic radiation generated as a side effect, which would rub the nerve cells the wrong way, causing severe pain.

The PEP would be intended to be effective over a distance of roughly 2km, and given the limitations of current laser technology, would probably be mounted on a vehicle to begin with. As you can see, that could be a fairly impressive non-lethal weapon, should design flaws ever be overcome: like a taser on steroids. However, lethal variants are just as likely to be researched and developed, because war.

The current rumour is that the non-lethal variant on the weapon is on hold, no longer being developed in the US, because the research indicated that the waveform necessary to render the weapon non-lethal wasn’t practical to create. That’s a longwinded, bureaucratic way of saying that it didn’t work after all. However, an option for an anti-drone variation on the PEP theme is still being budgeted for. It’s not called the military-industrial complex for nothing.

6. The Heat Ray
CBS/60 Minutes
Sonic weapons, lasers… now this. The Active Denial System (ADS) is a directed-energy weapon being developed by the US military. It heats the surface of the target, along the same principles as a microwave, messing with the molecules of water and fat in the top layers of skin (around 0.4mm deep).

The ADS, or heat ray, is designed for security and crowd control measures at present, as the decreased penetration of the short wave bursts only allows for minor surface blisters, not the nastier injuries that microwaves can cause. The longer the beam is applied to the surface of the target, the greater the heat application.

In tests on over 700 volunteers and around 10,000 applications, pain thresholds were exceeded after 3 seconds, and no one could take more than 5 seconds. Key to the non-lethal selling point of the ADS is that immediately the beam is removed from the skin, the pain vanishes. It’s been described as a highly effective weapon with a low likelihood of genuine injury.

However, drawbacks include the fact that a target unable to leave the beam’s area of effect (say, for example someone pinned down, a child or an invalid) would continue to be heated until the operator chose to remove the beam’s effect. Proper reflective clothing is also likely to completely nullify the beam’s effect. What kind of reflective clothing? Common kitchen foil would do. You could protect a regiment by nipping to Poundland in your lunchbreak.

5. Bring Down The Thunder
Applied Energetics Inc.
The lightning, actually. The Laser-Induced Plasma Channel, or LIPC works by creating a plasma pathway in midair and beckoning lightning bolts down them to strike the target. Should the target conduct electricity more efficiently than the air or the ground, they suffer the consequences.

Essentially, a high-intensity laser (around 60 billion watts flicked on for about two-trillionths of a second) ionises the air, forming a plasma channel, which conducts electricity far more efficiently than the normal air surrounding it, allowing electrical energy to travel down the channel towards and then through the target.

The science behind the LIPC is sound, but actually creating a working prototype has met with a few problems, chiefly because the focus of the laser could potentially occur within the laser device itself, rather than in the air. Power requirements are also a concern – in fact, one of the central issues with far too many of the innovative weapons projects currently being developed is that the science for fuelling the devices cheaply and efficiently doesn’t yet exist.

That means that, for all their innovation and the firing of the imagination in coming up with cool weapon systems, the whizkids behind the LIPC are going to have to solve some basic, boring problems with creating a new, gamechanging power source first.

4. Ring The Bell
Igor Witkowski
One of the more esoteric Wunderwaffe apparently being worked on by the Third Reich’d cadre of geniuses was an experimental relativistic device called Die Glocke, or The Bell.

We should point out at this stage that whispers about Die Glocke have been floating around for years with no further evidence that it ever properly existed, or worked if it did. The idea behind it appears to have been to utilise Einsteinian theories to pursue the creation of either anti-gravity or free energy… possibly one, with the other as a welcome side effect.

According to Igor Witkowski, author of the book ‘The Truth About The Wonder Weapon’, transcripts of an interrogation of a former SS officer detailed Die Glocke’s existence, the device being a nine foot wide, twelve foot high metal container roughly the shape of a bell, containing two cylinders rotating in opposite directions. Each cylinder was filled with a violet substance called xerum-525: the facility that housed The Bell and stored the xerum-525 was a place known by the code name ‘Der Riese’, or ‘The Giant’, near the Czech border.

The transcripts allegedly describe The Bell’s area of effect as being around 200 metres, extended from the skin of the device. Within that area of effect, plant matter would collapse and disintegrate and flesh would crystallise, leading to the accidental deaths of most of the scientists working on the project.

Given the peculiarly science fiction nature of Die Glocke, it’s perhaps dubious as to whether the device existed in the form that Witkowski claims it did… but what if the transcripts are genuine? The idea was recently floated as part of the survival horror flick Outpost, where modern day mercenaries are brutally murdered in the face by psychotic, experimental extra-dimensional Nazi ghost soldiers, created by Die Glocke. But that’s definitely not what happened in real life. Definitely.

3. The Super Soldier Exoskeleton
Superhero comic books have got a lot to answer for: specifically Marvel’s version, with their increased profile following their billion-dollar success stories in recent years. Why else would we have huge companies continuing to attempt to create powered exoskeletons to assist human beings in lifting, walking and of course, fighting?

There are several designs of exoskeleton in development… and they’ll remain in development until the design flaws are ironed out. The comic book inspirations are nowhere more obvious than in their names, with forced acronyms the order of the day. Lockheed Martin’s H.U.L.C. system (the Human Universal Load Carrier) is a classic example, in development since 2000 but announced to the public the year after Iron Man captivated the public’s imagination for the first time in 2008, given a clunky Marvel-inspired name.

Able to assist the wearer in carrying 200lb loads for extended periods at 10mph, the H.U.L.C. wasn’t exactly the most photogenic of creations, and didn’t support a cool looking body armour. Image isn’t something the US Special Operations Command T.A.L.O.S. programme has to worry about: far from it. Named after the huge man of bronze that guarded the island of Crete from invaders in classical myth, the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit had an animated Youtube clip online showing it deflecting bullets and bursting through doors practically before SOCOM had considered whether the damned thing was physically possible.

As ever, power is the key consideration. The many powered exoskeletons in development will need to move independently for longer than a few hours at a time in combat situations. Tony Stark created the arc reactor first and the Iron Man armour second… there’s a reason it went that way around, even in the movies.

The other issue is weight: one of the briefs for the increasingly ridiculous T.A.L.O.S. pipe dream is for the suit to weigh less than 400lbs, the mass of two grown men. Any powered exoskeleton will need to lift its own weight before anything else is considered, severely compromising its efficiency.

2. Maybe One Day We’ll Have A Railgun

A really old idea, the first ‘electric cannon’ was patented in 1918. Nearly a century later, we’re still waiting for a working model to finally reach mass production. The development of the railgun has been plagued with problems for decades.

Working on basic principles of physics, the railgun is intended to act as a hypersonic projectile weapon that acts without the need for explosive propellants or expensive ammunition. Two conducting rails are connected by a power source, and a third conductive bridge – the projectile itself – is laid between them. The ensuing magnetic force pushes the projectile out at phenomenal speeds, anything from Mach 7 to Mach 10. To get a clear indication of comparative speeds, a high end modern rifle like the .220 Swift with a high performance cartridge can expect to reach a muzzle velocity of around 1200 metres per second, around Mach 3.5: a basic railgun model would be expected to reach double that with a huge projectile.

A rail gun has other advantages aside from ridiculous speed and power, not least the fact that the ammunition is so much cheaper and safer to manufacture, transport and store. It’s also supposed to be highly accurate, over an estimated 50-mile range. Aside from the artillery pieces, handheld versions have also been touted for some time: the Gauss gun is a near relative, and hobbyists have been making badly inefficient homemade versions of them for decades.

Today, it’s estimated that a fully operational artillery model will be ready for final sign off and proper production by next year: the weapon is such a big part of the US Navy’s long term plans that the current generation of destroyers are all electric, in preparation for the fitting of the finished railgun product. It makes sense: the railgun is essentially a 21st century ship’s cannon. However, they’ve been saying ‘next year, next year’ for a long, long time. We’ll take it with a pinch of salt.

1. Project Habakkuk
In the early 1940s, with World War II in full swing, inventor and innovator Geoffrey Pyke was considering how to solve the very topical problem of providing cover and protection from German u-boats to troop ships and convoys in the mid-Atlantic, out of range of any land-based aircraft squadron.

It being halfway through the biggest and most expensive war in history, proper building materials were in short supply, and correspondingly expensive to procure. Suddenly, Pyke hit upon the solution, an idea both revolutionary and practical. He would have build the biggest aircraft carrier the world had ever seen, cheaper and more efficiently than any before it: an unsinkable floating island made entirely of ice.

This wasn’t a new idea, astonishingly. A German initiative had attempted something on a smaller scale a dozen years earlier, and the idea had already circulated the Admiralty a few years earlier, to almost total ridicule. Pyke was the first to consider crafting the huge carrier from pykrete, though.
Ice, you see, isn’t actually that strong, and melts arbitrarily and at the wrong moments. Meanwhile, icebergs are mostly underwater and prone to tipping and rolling, thereby making lousy landing strips for aircraft. Pykrete, on the other hand, named for Pyke himself, was frozen water and wood pulp: its low thermal conductivity made melting far less of a consideration, and it had more in common with concrete in terms of its bulletproof consistency and durability. It could also be easily shaped for construction.

Project Habakkuk (named for the book of the Bible that referenced a magnificent work of the Lord: “Be utterly astounded! For I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you.”) was, as should be obvious to anyone, a non-starter. The project required a giant refrigeration plant and insultation to keep the pykrete the correct temperature and prevent plastic flow from causing the shape of the giant ship to sag: such a plant would be too expensive and take too long to build.

Costs had ballooned to £2.5million by the time the idea was scrapped, with every arm of the British military chipping in to add their own outlandish requirements to the increasingly ludicrous proposal. Pyke himself had been removed from the project long before.

Do you have a favourite ‘top secret’ weapon or military project you’d like to tell the world about, whether upcoming or past, roaring success or utter fiasco?


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