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There's a weapon that — theoretically, at least — could take out any electronic system, disabling cars, planes, nuclear power plants and more. Another weapon, using similar technology, produces searing pain in people without harming them, so it could be used to disperse crowds. 

These weapons use microwaves focused in an intense beam, and the U.S. military has been studying them since the 1960s, a report in Nature News detailed. Yet researchers haven't made much progress, Nature News found, and some critics don't think scientists will ever be able to make a useful high-powered microwave weapon against electronics. Meanwhile, research continues, using $47 million a year, in part because some experts fear terrorist groups or other nations may be developing the technology. 

An effective microwave weapon could cripple enemy forces without killing any civilians or other unintended targets. "Cars could be stopped in their tracks, radars blinded and computers destroyed, with no need for high explosives," Nature News explained. 

A few barriers have kept researchers from making a useable microwave gun or bomb, however. Such devices need a small explosive to power them, making the overall device large and potentially dangerous to carry on aircraft. Scientists also don't have a good understanding of how microwaves act once they're fired off. The waves may not be strong enough to disable a target electronic, for example. 

The Air Force will continue to study microwave weapons, while cutting back some to make up for a shrinking research budget, General Norton Schwartz, who retired last month from his position as Air Force chief, told industry magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology. Meanwhile, some experts Nature News talked with found microwave studies less than compelling. 

Commenting on the Air Force's efforts to make a microwave tool for crowd control, nuclear engineer Hans Mark said, "Almost all of this program has been a waste of money." Mark is a former director of defense research for the Pentagon. 

One solution may be to reduce the secrecy surrounding the military's work into microwaves. More open communication between the government and university labs would give everyone a fuller, more realistic idea of microwaves' promise, Nature News reported.

Check out the original story for fascinating accounts of microwave weapons tests the U.S. has performed, plus how researchers realized microwaves could be weaponized in the first place. 

Source: Nature News

This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.