Using sound as a weapon dates back to biblical times, where it’s said the Israelites tore down the walls of Jericho by blowing powerful ram horns. Audio weapons were extensively researched and prototyped in World War II and the Cold War, with devices such as the Sonic Cannon and the subtly devastating Infrasonic Whistle. In the late '80s and early '90s, audio was used to apprehend Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and disrupt the Branch Davidian cult in Waco.
Then there is the Hum, an ultra-low frequency that occurs all over the world. Only 2% of the world’s populace can hear it, and it is said to drive those who hear it insane. Imagine a weapon able to drive people insane, tear them apart, or control their minds without even using drugs, as MK Ultra does. The idea of aural warfare has long captured the imagination of weapons developers, sci-fi nerds, and scientists alike.
There are many reasons to fear the ways sound can be used to control people, and weaponized sound can be used to devastating effect — quelling rebellions, fending off pirates, and controlling nations. North Korea even forces its populace to listen to propaganda wrapped in the guise of music, insuring total control over the populace.
Here's what we know about the development of audio as a weapon.
LRADs Are Powerful Sonic Weapons Used By Police To Quell Protests
LRADs — Long Range Acoustic Devices — have been around since the early 2000s, but were first used in the US in 2009. The LRAD directs sound waves in a high-density sound wave-beam, and the closer you are to it, the more damage it does. While it isn’t lethal, the weapon is powerful enough to shatter eardrums and cause temporary blindness, disorientation, and nausea.
These "sonic guns" can be used for a multitude of applications, from simple directional communication to non-lethal, non-kinetic crowd control. Police occasionally use it to quell and control riots and violent gatherings; the LRAD has also been used to send emergency notifications during mass communications and power failure.
One particular LRAD, dubbed the Scream by the Israeli Defense Force, was famously used in Israel during a protest that quickly turned violent. It effectively repelled violent protesters, leaving them disoriented and nauseous.
Acoustic Weapons Were Used Against Somali Pirates
Long Range Acoustic Devices are often deployed on seafaring ships, mostly as a means of defense. Such was the case when a US cruise ship was approached by pirates in the middle of the night near the Somali coast in 2005. The attack was so sudden the ship's captain literally fought off pirates in his bathrobe.
LRADs were a relatively new technology at the time and rarely used in the field, but within moments of attack, the pirates found out firsthand how they work. Despite the pirates' AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, after a few sweeps of the LRAD they quickly backed off, allowing the cruise ship to escape and find safe harbor.
US Diplomats In Cuba May Have Been Attacked By A Mysterious Sonic Weapon
In late 2017, US diplomats and intelligence agents stationed in Cuba were evacuated after experiencing mysterious ailments. Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement about these events along with a list of symptoms the 17 expelled personnel had experienced: “ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping.”
The media exploded in a flurry of speculation regarding the possible use of sonic weapons to cause these illnesses, and noted all of the symptoms were linked to inner-ear damage. Some diplomats reported hearing strange sounds in certain areas of their offices — "disturbing sensations of sounds and vibrations that have been described variously as the noises made by cicadas, static, metal sheets waving or... marbles rolling around a metal funnel" — as the NY Times put it. According to an analysis in Wired,
The problem is, physicists and acousticians don’t know how ultrasound (high frequency) or infrasound (low frequency) could do what the State Department says happened to its people. That leaves two possibilities: a new sci-fi sound gun or something else.
Though the use of a newly-developed sonic technology was not entirely ruled out, it was determined the most likely cause was poison, specifically, ototoxins. When in the bloodstream, they can cause the very same symptoms as the Cuban delegation experienced. However, even that theory proved to be problematic, as ototoxins have limitations. For example, they can only be injected or inhaled, and both of those require a relatively obvious method of delivery. Additionally, some speculated, if it was poison leveraged by the Cuban government, why wouldn't the US government release that information? The mystery remained unsolved as US-Cuba relations took a step back from their seeming Obama-era progress.
Aural Disruption Tactics Were Blamed For A 2018 Evacuation Of The American Consulate In Guangzhou, China
In 2018, US diplomatic officials in Guangzhou, China, were sent back to the US for testing after experiencing symptoms similar to those the State Department officials had reported in Cuba in 2017. The NY Times called it a "medical mystery" and stated US officials suspected other countries, including Russia, might be to blame for both events. One of the first known victims in China reportedly "showed signs of possible brain injury after reporting disturbing sounds and sensations," and the official health alert warned,
A US government employee in China recently reported subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure... We do not currently know what caused the reported symptoms and we are not aware of any similar situations in China, either inside or outside of the diplomatic community.
The Times went on to report,
The injuries in Cuba, like those in China, followed disturbing sensations of sounds and vibrations that have been described variously as the noises made by cicadas, static, metal sheets waving or... marbles rolling around a metal funnel.
The State Department is unsure what the cause could be, but audio was involved in both scenarios, causing neurological problems.