Mitigating the Threat from Low Signature Weapons:

The Lesson of the Havana Syndrome

As wars are being fought in new and innovative ways, a crisis like in Ukraine makes it evident that the fifth-generation of warfare is upon us and promises to be the most lethal and destructive in history. As we enter this generation, it is clear that traditional kinetic military action will take a backseat to non-kinetic action, such as social engineering, misinformation, and cyberattacks.

With emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and fully autonomous systems, we will wade deep into a threat environment where indicators, signposts, trends, and even attacks are increasingly difficult to detect, as has been the case with the “Havana Syndrome.”
Some of the better-known fifth-generation weapons that are being developed include laser weapons, plasma weapons, electromagnetic pulse weapons, and directed energy weapons. Each of these weapons, as a standalone, has the potential to revolutionize warfare as we know it let
alone when an adversary becomes capable of employing multiple types at once. So far, we have viewed these types of weapons as prototypes still in the development stages. However, unexplained cases resulting from the Havana Syndrome experienced by our Diplomatic, Intelligence, and Military officers suggest we are in the era where the fifth-generation weapons are already operational and are being tested and deployed against us as low signature weapons.

As a quick background, starting in November 2020, several U.S. Diplomats in Havana, Cuba, reported experiencing health problems that were later determined to be the result of exposure to some type of sonic weapon. The term coined for these anomalies became the Havana Syndrome, and since, similar cases have been reported by U.S. Government personnel in several countries, including Austria, China, India, Russia, and Spain, and even in our nation’s capital, Washington D.C. While these attacks are believed to have been carried out by some type of directed energy weapon, the exact weapon used–and the actor who deployed the weapon–is still unknown. On June 24, 2022, the Biden Administration announced compensation for those with proven side effects, primarily cognitive effects, from the Havana Syndrome. For the first time, the announcement highlighted the U.S. Government taking ownership that these persons may have been injured due to their service.

The United States embassy is seen in Havana, Cuba, March 3, 2022. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

Directed Energy Weapons are Hard to Defeat Without Detection Systems

In a world of increasingly sophisticated weaponry, low signature weapons give our adversaries a vital advantage not just in the city environments where the Havana Syndrome cases were most evident but on the battlefield. Low signature weapons are designed to minimize their visibility to our detection systems, making them increasingly difficult to track and target. Even when just reviewing the root cause of the Havana Syndrome, our Intelligence Community could not agree on a clear answer nor which persons were indeed affected by such a weapon. It may be due to intelligence gaps, as when reviewing the properties of a directed energy weapon, its stealth design does not leave all the signatures necessary for a detailed battle damage assessment of the situation. Thus, this ambiguity gives our enemy a critical advantage in various environments, particularly in combat, as these weapons are much more difficult to detect, making them ideal for covert operations. They also don’t emit noise and light, making it difficult to pinpoint their position and the origin of an attack. Low signature weapons can also be more effective in close quarters situations, as they are less likely to cause collateral damage due to being able to closely direct
the focus of its energy at the target.

When used against us on the battlefield, directed energy weapons pose many threats we must prepare for. First, with a denigrated workflow being the most straightforward example as just causing nausea in a large number of soldiers could make a force completely ineffective–without even firing one shot at them. Then since these weapons are not immediately detectable, a sustained attack can occur against our forces well before a consensus on it being an actual attack comes to fruition. Also, this attack can consistently be focused on our troops, as it’s not mortars being fired at a location for 30 minutes; it’s the body taking in sonic effects 24 hours a day, for days, weeks, and even months, at a time. This deployment method allows the perpetrator to have a hidden hand as the systems can operate independently. That means there is a limited risk, as well, to our adversary as they can set it up and keep the platform engaged on the target with minimal manning, upkeep, and maintenance. Lastly, in the case of the Havana Syndrome, which is assumed to be caused by a nation-state actor, it is rarely discussed that directed energy weapons are easily portable and relatively inexpensive, making them attractive to non-state threat actors like terrorist groups.


On Countermeasures, Strategies and Training

While the victims of the Havana Syndrome are finally receiving the recognition, care, and hopefully the appropriate compensation needed to recover, the time is now to shift the conversation to what needs to be done to mitigate the risks posed by these forms of low signature weapons. Even the term “Havana Syndrome” results in mixed responses, as some of our finest public servants have been questioned and scrutinized. In reality, the focus should be on the effect these weapons had and will have in the future, as adversaries can use them to disable critical infrastructure, disrupt communications, and lead to increased medical issues, including death.

Individuals can take steps to mitigate some risks from DEW. To protect oneself, there is a growing market for apparel designed to protect the wearer from harmful radiation. This apparel is crafted from materials that block or absorb radiation, such as lead or copper. While this type of apparel is not yet widespread, it is becoming more popular as people become more aware of the dangers of exposure. With the proper clothing, one can significantly reduce radiation exposure, making it an essential tool in the fight against this invisible threat and to stay safe in other hazardous environments. However, the emerging threat posed by DEWs requires a national strategy to defend our personnel from the dangers.

To mitigate the risks posed by DEWs on a national level, a few important steps are: to understand the capabilities and limitations of DEWs; develop countermeasures and defensive strategies; conduct regular training exercises; monitor the development of DEW technology; and
cooperate with allies to share information and resources. The United States must invest in research and development to improve its ability to detect, track, and counter these weapons. This includes renewing how non-communication-related Radiofrequency (RF) energy is prioritized
within our industrial base. One solution is creating a spectrum analysis infrastructure with automated alerts. When discussing cooperating with allies, the United States should also partner to develop international norms and standards to ensure that DEWs are used safely and
responsibly, which would help prevent their misuse.

In conclusion, the need to mitigate threats from DEWs is imperative. While we must care and provide for those exposed to these weapons, there is a duty to prevent the damage from occurring in the first place. We need to invest in better detection tools and improved intelligence collection to determine what weapons are being used against us and how to stop them.

Sarah Adams is a global threat intelligence expert, having served in the Intelligence Community, Congress, the aviation industry, and the non-profit sector. She has worked overseas on behalf of the U.S. Government’s intelligence mission in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.