All’s fair in love and war. In times of conflict, people will use any tool at their disposal as a weapon against adversaries, and sound is no exception. Much like the military helicopters in Apocalypse Now blasting out “Ride of the Valkyries” as they swarm ominously over Vietnam, sonic warfare techniques have played a vital role in many real-life combat situations.
In recent years, the Israeli military’s acoustic blaster Scream has been wheeled out on occasions to dispel Palestinian protestors from the Gaza border, similar to how sound cannons were deployed by riot police at the Ferguson demonstrations. That said, weaponized sound is hardly a modern phenomenon; there are examples dating back to the Troubles in the early 1970s and further still to Nazi propaganda music during World War II
Whether it’s nausea-inducing ultrasonic signals or ear-splitting Guns N’ Roses, acoustic weapons have a deep and fascinating history. Here are ten examples.
General Manuel Noriega cut a fearsome figure in Latin American politics. As the de facto leader of Panama throughout most of the 1980s, he earned a formidable reputation as a ruthless, repressive dictator comparable to the notorious Augusto Pinochet. His purported crimes include the harassment and intimidation of opponents, orchestrating drug smuggling into Miami, and the torture and murder of physician Hugo Spadafora.
Initially, Noriega had been a close ally of the US; under Nixon, he helped arrange the release of two American freighters from Cuba. However, relationships gradually soured, and in 1989, amid claims of drug trafficking and a corrupt presidential election, the US staged an invasion of Panama. Noriega sought refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama City.
US troops soon had the embassy surrounded, and on Christmas Day 1989, they began a campaign of psychological warfare to force Noriega out of power. The US Army blared out an endless playlist of rock and heavy metal bands on loudspeakers at the building. Several of the tracks were specifically chosen to humiliate the dictator and his crumbled regime, such as The Clash’s “I Fought The Law” and the Van Halen song “Panama.” After three days of relentless exposure, the music was turned off, and on January 3, 1990, Noriega surrendered.
The US has repeated these tactics on numerous occasions. Texas law enforcement agents are reported to have played loud pop music and Tibetan chants as part of the Waco siege of the Branch Davidian cult in 1993. During a 2010 campaign in Afghanistan, Marines reportedly blasted Metallica and Thin Lizzy into Marjah villages for hours at a time.
In terms of new-generation military equipment, Israel is one of the undisputed global front-runners—so much so that in 2017, they were described by the New York Post as having “the most technologically advanced military on Earth.” The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have stood firmly at the cutting edge of a multitude of developments in recent years. Unmanned vehicles patrol the borders with Gaza and Syria. Israeli spy satellites monitor the country’s enemies from miles above the clouds. In 2000, with the launch of the Arrow system, Israel proudly announced that it had developed the first working system for intercepting ballistic missiles.
One of the IDF’s innovations is a less-than-lethal sonic weapon named Scream. The sound gun was first deployed in 2011, when demonstrators began hurling stones and burning tires in protest against the ongoing occupation. The high-tech weapon fired sonic pulses at the rioters at the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. The protesters were left with feelings of nausea and dizziness.
The issue of Northern Ireland has always been a contentious one in the UK and remains so to this day, but as the violence of the Troubles spilled over into the 1970s, tensions neared breaking point. In January 1973—only a year after the infamous Bloody Sunday attacks saw 14 civilians shot dead by the British Army—mass rioting broke out across the streets of Derry. Throughout that year, reports of people losing their lives to the conflict surfaced on a near-weekly basis. Many of them were civilians killed in violent bomb attacks.
In an attempt to quell the escalating resistance movement, the British Army developed a sonic weapon for what they described as the “non-violent” dispersal of rioters. The device emitted two ultrasonic signals with similar but not identical frequencies. In isolation, these signals were relatively harmless—the frequencies were barely low enough to be audible. However, when the two combined in the ear, the result was said to be ear-splitting. A number of people targeted by the device reported feelings of giddiness and nausea. A handful even passed out.
This repellent machine, named the Squawk Box, was thought to have been developed by a team of researchers at the army’s barracks in Lisburn, a city a few miles outside Belfast. The box was favored for its direct precision; the beam was so calculated that it could pinpoint individual targets during a riot.
Although New Scientist magazine reported on the development at the time, the British Army was reticent to divulge much information about the device. The exact range and power of the Squawk Box is unknown, as is the number of cases during which it was deployed.
From the minute Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries drove General Fulgencio Batista out of Cuba, the United States has used any means available to them in their attempts to overthrow the socialist government. While the Bay of Pigs invasion fell flat, the ongoing US-imposed embargo has severely limited the island’s access to trade and tourism—costing the Cuban economy a reported $130 billion. Other attacks on the Cuban government have seemed more like something out of a James Bond movie. During the 1960s, the CIA’s failed plans to assassinate Castro included poisoning his ice cream, drugging his cigars with hallucinogens, and the infamous attempt to conceal a hypodermic needle inside a pen.
However, in recent years, it seems that US government personnel in Havana have also come under attack. As the relationship between the US and Cuba grows increasingly taut, accusations have flown over strange incidents of potential sonic warfare: Havana Syndrome. From late 2016 to August 2017, staff at the US Embassy in Havana suffered a number of neurological health issues after hearing a high-pitched whining noise in their homes and hotels. Twenty-four diplomats reported feelings of nausea, dizziness, and headaches, with many experiencing long-term symptoms like cognitive dysfunction and sleep impairment.
It was initially reported by the US that the illnesses were induced by a sophisticated acoustic attack. After all, it was highly suspicious that a varied group of people with no history of head trauma would all experience similar symptoms around the same time. Further evidence appeared to verify this explanation after US personnel released a recording of buzzing drone noise to the Associated Press. Government officials told reporters that they were investigating the possibility that a third country was behind the attacks, perhaps in an attempt to widen the divide between the US and Cuba.
However, following investigation from the University of Pennsylvania, several scientists expressed doubts that the sickness was caused by an external stimulus. Some scientists have even claimed that the recording was not an audio device at all but the mating call of a Caribbean cricket.
The Mosquito Alarm is a highly controversial device, designed to disperse groups of teenagers from public areas. The alarm, which was first sold commercially in Britain over a decade ago, emits an irritating high-pitched tone that is supposedly only audible to people younger than 25. In less than ten minutes, the grating whine is said to be able to move loiterers on from car parks or outside shops. From personal experience as a teenager in Britain, I can confirm it’s a horrible metallic din.
Naturally, the squalling Mosquito has amassed several detractors. UK advocacy group Liberty have claimed that the alarm infringes on young people’s fundamental human rights. Various campaigners have called for it to be banned. The device indiscriminately causes distress to young people passing by. Under-25s with no intention of loitering will still be “stung” by the mosquito, including those with sensitive hearing, like babies and children with autism.
Thousands have been sold in the UK to date, with police forces and city councils among the purchasers. Only a few cities like Edinburgh and Kent have actually taken to prohibiting the Mosquito. In spite of many objections, it seems the anti-teenage buzz will continue.
Acoustic weapons are a popular choice for ships arming themselves against a pirate invasion, and on some occasions, they’ve been brilliantly effective. When the cruise liner Seabourn Spirit was attacked by pirates near the coast of Somalia in November 2005, the security team managed to stave off their armed assailants with a sonic cannon and a high-pressure water hose. Under fire from grenades and rocket launchers, security officer Michael Groves deployed a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) to safeguard the boat’s 300-plus passengers. Groves and his colleague Som Bahadur Gurung, who was injured in the skirmish, were subsequently awarded honors by the Queen for their bravery.
Although the LRAD was successful for Seabourn Spirit, a few years later, a US chemical tanker would not share the same fortune. In 2008, pirates mounted a vicious attack on M/V Biscaglia, again in waters near Somalia—only on this occasion, when security fired up their sonic blaster, the invading crew shrugged it off. The security team later told writers for British newspaper The Mirror : “We thought it would make the pirates back off, but they just laughed. It was a total waste of time.”
While the pirates brandished automatic assault rifles, Biscaglia’s security were left trying to fend them off with scaffolding poles and flare guns. In the end, their only option was to dive from the tanker into the water—a 15-meter (50 ft) drop—to avoid being killed.
Germany has a proud history of revered classical composers—Beethoven, Bach, and Wagner, to name a few. In fact, the tradition is so rich and deeply entrenched that some thinkers have been inspired to describe music as “the most German of the arts.” For this reason, music became a significant weapon in the arsenal of the Third Reich.
During the 1930s, the rising popularity of modernist styles like swing and jazz was viewed as degenerate by various pockets of German society. Several nationalists saw these trends, often performed by Jewish and African-American musicians, as a symptom of the decaying culture they yearned to preserve.
With a clear hostility to modern trends appearing, music was utilized by the Nazi Party as a way to stoke nationalist sentiment and instill people with what they saw as traditional German values. On top of this, it was a valuable tool for attracting new supporters. Songs concerning Hitler and the Third Reich were regularly performed at rallies during World War II; the anti-Soviet propaganda piece “Horst-Wessel-Lied” was a particularly popular choice. The Hitler Youth even established their own prodigious music program.
The Nazi’s regime of cultural propaganda was wildly successful in keeping spirits high and widening the support for their far-right politics. As Joseph Goebbels remarked: “Music affects the heart and emotions more than the intellect. Where then could the heart of a nation beat stronger than in the huge masses, in which the heart of a nation has found its true home?”
Humans aren’t the only species to be targeted and manipulated by sonic weapons. Across the globe, sound cannons are blasting out harsh tones in order to deter local animals and prevent wildlife-related damage. Some can even be programmed to mimic the call of a predator.
Wind farms, oil platforms, and vineyards are among some of the businesses known to use acoustic systems to protect their assets from attack. For example, over the better part of the last decade, LRAD units have played an integral role in reducing the number of bird strikes on the Guglielmo Marconi Airport in Bologna, Italy. Elsewhere, villagers in Northern Canada have begun to use them as a humane defense against polar bear attacks.
In recent years, sound cannons have been an effective tool for police in the United States to intimidate and disperse protesters. In 2014, the shooting of Michael Brown sparked enormous anger across the country. Demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, took to the streets, enraged by the death of another young black man at the hands of law enforcement.
To stave them off, police deployed a LRAD similar to the one used against Somali pirates. Initially, the device issues vocal instructions for crowds to clear the area, followed by a piercing deterrent tone that has been known to induce headaches. The ear-splitting sonic blaster, an LRAD 500X-RA, ranges over 2,000 meters (6,600 ft) and can achieve a maximum volume of 149 decibels. To put that in perspective, 120 decibels is the discomfort threshold above which a sound becomes painful, and after 130 decibels, you face possible hearing loss.
This is hardly the first time a US police force has used a sound cannon to clear out protestors. Similar tactics were used by the NYPD during the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, and in 2016, LRADs were deployed on several occasions as police stepped up their aggression against the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
In 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee published an extensive report disclosing a number fascinating and disturbing facts about CIA torture techniques. Among the controversial revelations was the use of “sound disorientation techniques” at the COBALT facility, similar to those reported at Guantanamo Bay in 2008. The report describes how prisoners were detained in shackles in an unlit cell and prevented from falling asleep by repeatedly playing loud music for extended periods of time. This psychological attack disorientates and intimidates detainees, with the aim of eventually “breaking” them into submission.
On top of this, certain songs were used as a form of conditioning to let prisoners know that another torture session was imminent. Before the interrogation of suspected terrorist Ramzi bin al-Shibh, staff would taunt him with the Blues Brothers’ “Rawhide.” Traditional American genres like metal and country are favored by the CIA. These styles are deliberately chosen because the foreign, alien sounds have a disorienting effect on prisoners from the Middle East, thus exacerbating the torment.