Havana Syndrome: Were Our Diplomats Attacked with Microwave Weapons?

By Alex Berezow, PhD — Oct 23, 2020
We know that in the 1970s the Soviets used microwave weapons against American diplomats. Maybe with the cooperation of other countries, Putin's Russia is doing it again.
Credit: Public Domain/Wikipedia

Remember the Cuban "sonic attack" on American diplomats that was made public in 2017? Diplomats reported hearing strange sounds, and many suffered hearing and memory loss and brain damage, a condition now referred to as "Havana Syndrome." To this day, we don't really know what happened -- although somebody might.

A new investigation by the New York Times revealed that the U.S. government is withholding a report from the National Academy of Sciences that investigated the cause of the incident. The investigation did not reveal why, but it may be because the government is hesitant to upset the Chinese. Diplomats in China, Russia, and elsewhere have also reported Havana Syndrome.

When this incident was first reported, we speculated that the cause may have been nerve damage due to exposure -- either purposeful or inadvertent -- to chemical solvents. But subsequent analysis pointed toward microwave weapons.

Were American Diplomats Attacked by Microwave Weapons?

Microwaves are on the electromagnetic spectrum, along with visible light, UV light, X-rays and radio waves. Thus, they are a form of light, not sound. Yet, it is well established that some types of microwave radiation can cause a person to "hear" clicks or buzzing in his head. The mechanism is unknown, however there is a (controversial) hypothesis that involves the thermoelastic effect. As the microwave beam causes the brain to expand (ever so slightly), it produces a pressure wave that is perceived as sound -- even though there isn't really any sound. A U.S. army report from many years ago describes the phenomenon:

Note the last sentence, which mentions that 40 joules per square centimeter was required. That's a lot of energy. To put it into context, let's consider sunlight, which is roughly 1,000 watts per square meter. Doing the math, that translates to 0.1 watt/cm2, which means that in one second, a square centimeter on the earth's surface gets about 0.1 Joule of energy from sunlight (1 watt = 1 Joule/second). The microwave weapon described above is providing 400 times more energy.

Put in more familiar terms, astrophysicist Dr. Ethan Siegel explained to me in an email, "If you are talking about 40 J/cm2 over the entire human body, that's about as much energy as a fully loaded Harley Davidson going 100 mph." Yikes.

Are Microwave Weapons Real?

Okay, this is all interesting in theory, but do microwave weapons actually exist? Yes. The U.S. military uses a non-lethal weapon called an active denial system that employs millimeter waves (which are a type of microwave, contrary to what the military website says) to heat up the surface of a person's skin. It's unpleasant, which makes the target leave. The military also developed a weapon that can do precisely what the American diplomats experienced in Cuba and elsewhere: It can cause brain damage and can cause people to "hear" sounds that aren't really there.

We know that in the 1970s, the Soviets used microwave weapons against American diplomats. Maybe with the cooperation of other countries, Putin's Russia is doing it again.


Alex Berezow, PhD

Former Vice President of Scientific Communications

Dr. Alex Berezow is a PhD microbiologist, science writer, and public speaker who specializes in the debunking of junk science for the American Council on Science and Health. He is also a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and a featured speaker for The Insight Bureau. Formerly, he was the founding editor of RealClearScience.

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