On November 17, an astounding revelation in the context of the India-China standoff in the disputed region of Ladakh was made by a Chinese professor that China used a microwave attack, which forced the Indian soldiers to retreat from a strategically significant hilltop in the disputed territory. Jin Canrong, a professor at Renmin University Beijing and an expert on international affairs, was talking to a group of students while narrating the incident which took place in August 2020; however, the story made headlines in the international press around mid of November. Both India and China were engaged in bloody conflict almost all summer where batons and bamboo sticks were broadly used by soldiers and multiple casualties were reported from each side.

Although the Sino-India border dispute along the Ladakh region dates back to the 1962 Sino-Indian war, no combat casualty was reported in decades along the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) until now. There is also an agreement in place which bars both the disputants from the use of live ammunition against each other, however, as per Professor Jin Canrong, China got around the agreement and “resolved the matter beautifully” in its favour. India has outrightly denied such an attack, saying that its soldiers are still occupying the hilltop which the Chinese professor claims to have been vacated and captured by using the microwave attack.

Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) is an umbrella term used to describe the weapons which use highly focused energy, including lasers, microwave, and particle beams, to inflict damage upon its target. It is not the first instance that the use of Directed Energy Weapons is made public and the concept, at least theoretically, dates back decades. Optimal Dazzling Interdictor, Navy or ODIN is a laser-based system used by the US Navy’s warships to intercept and destroy an aircraft mid-flight. The US Navy plans to install the weapon extensively across the warships as it is stealth, accurate, and cost-effective solution to inbound aerial threats. Experts are extrapolating that soon the lasers might be used to intercept incoming ballistic missiles and if it happens, they will be multiple times more effective than the best anti-ballistic missile defense systems available such as S-400 or THAAD. Similarly, China had displayed the weapon, known as Poly WB-1, allegedly used in the attack, for the first time in an air show in 2014. However, it is for the first time that China has claimed to have used the DEWs against a living target. On previous occasions, it was mostly the opposing side coming up with such allegations as the United States against USSR in the 1970s. A microwave attack works on the same principle as a microwave oven used at homes. An electromagnetic beam directed at a target is sent from as far away as 0.6 miles which agitates the water molecules in the body, causing the temperature to rise. It causes instant discomfort to the subject as the temperature may rise to 122°F. The subjects could end up vomiting and running away, as it was intended in the attack China claims to have conducted.

Since it is China we are talking about here, a country which has strict control over the information and media, the veracity of news is difficult to confirm from multiple sources. There is also a likelihood that no such attack ever took place and India is rightly claiming that it is just another Chinese attempt toward propaganda warfare. The third and most plausible explanation could be that China deliberately put the information out to test the waters. DEWs in active combat, for offensive objectives, is unchartered territory with no prior precedence. The idea was to gauge the reaction from the international community towards the no lethal use of high-energy weapons against human beings.  As expected, the incident did not garner the requisite attention internationally which is likely an encouraging sign for China. And if the reaction would have been strong, since it was a professor who broke the news, and not a Chinese government official, it would have provided China with plausible deniability.

The long-term impact of even the non-lethal concentrated energy weapons upon humans is still unknown. As per the latest report issued by the US State department the mysterious case of US diplomates falling sick in Cuba and China back in 2016 could have been caused by a similar microwave attack. If the arms race continues, there is a possibility that we might end up witnessing such lethal weapons in the armory of many nations. As discussed earlier, the stealth and precisely targeting characteristics of DEWs which make them highly effective could make them deadly as well. If we have learned anything from the efforts of nuclear non-proliferation, it should make it clear that the only way to stop countries from going down a certain road is proactive policy intervention. Disarming a country, as evident from those which have an active nuclear arsenal, that has achieved a certain military capability is simply impossible. Hence, to avoid another race to the bottom for attaining and making more sophisticated Directed Energy Weapons, there needs to be an international effort in this regard which could set the rules of the game and make countries comply with them. The contrary scenario is simply too damning to even imagine.