There are many hardships facing Indian soldiers posted to the icy Himalayan hilltops along the disputed border with China. But no one expected this.
One moment, they felt healthy and alert, eyes peeled for signs of their aggressive neighbour’s troops. Then, within less than a minute, they began to vomit almost simultaneously, as if struck down by a violent stomach bug.
The soldiers’ bodies grew weak, with some barely able to stand, and they fled, leaving the hilltops open for units of Chinese soldiers to move in and occupy. Not a shot had been fired.
This mysterious encounter in August had remained almost completely unknown until last week when – in a lecture to students at Renmin University in Beijing – Chinese professor Jin Canrong disclosed not only the event itself, but the secret weapon responsible.
According to Prof Jin, the Chinese had used a microwave weapon against the Indians. It had targeted them with high-frequency electro-magnetic pulses that heated up the body, causing irritation and pain. The Chinese had effectively turned the hilltops into a vast microwave oven, threatening to cook their opponents alive.
‘We solved the problem beautifully,’ Prof Jin said. ‘They [India] didn’t publicise it either because they lost so miserably.’
The existence of directed-energy weapons (DEWs) has long been known, yet this seems to be the first time such a weapon has been used openly.
The US military has developed its own DEW, the non-lethal Active Denial System, which was deployed in Afghanistan in 2010 but was withdrawn without seeing combat.
The Indian Army dismisses Prof Jin’s claim about the incident in the Himalayas as ‘fake news’. However, one person who believes it is MP Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of the Defence Select Committee.
‘We know the Chinese have been researching and developing these kinds of weapons for some time,’ he told The Mail on Sunday. More alarming still, such weapons might already be in clandestine use elsewhere.
Take the case of long-standing employee of the United States Foreign Service ‘Audrey Lee’ – not her real name. She was excited to find herself posted to Havana and the recently reopened American embassy in the Cuban capital.
Lee lived in Havana with her husband and two children, and until the evening of March 17, 2017, when she was washing the dishes after dinner, everything had seemed fine.
Suddenly, she felt an acute stabbing pain in her head. It was almost unbearable, and it stopped her sleeping well for several weeks. Tired, forgetful and with her performance at work dropping off, Lee knew something was wrong, but she didn’t alert anybody for fear of losing her job. ‘She looked like a zombie,’ her husband told New Yorker magazine.
‘She physically couldn’t function.’ Lee was not the only embassy employee to suffer. Medics tested dozens of affected workers and the only thing they could call the condition, which resembled a form of concussion, was the ‘Thing’. Later, it would be called the ‘Havana Syndrome’, yet medics were none the wiser as to its cause.
The following year and 9,000 miles away in Guangzhou – in China, another American fell ill. His name was Mark Lenzi, an employee of the US State Department. Like Audrey Lee, he was affected by insomnia, memory loss and acute headaches. Worse, his wife and children also suffered.
Mr Lenzi, who worked as a diplomatic security officer, had heard what had happened in Cuba, and was worried the same ‘Thing’ was being suffered by American officials in China. Then, Americans and even Canadians in cities around the world were claiming to have been severely affected by the ‘Thing’.
Among them was Marc Polymeropoulos, a secret CIA operative, who woke in a hotel room in Moscow in early December 2017, feeling ‘like I was going to both throw up and pass out at the same time’.
Although the feeling receded and he would put it down to something he ate, the symptoms returned in a restaurant two days later, and would do so even after he returned to the US. Multiple scans revealed nothing, but the nausea and the vertigo were all too real, as was a ringing in his ears.
So what has caused this mysterious syndrome?
Mr Ellwood is among those who suspect the victims have, like the Indian soldiers, been hit with some form of DEW.
‘It stands to reason that a hostile competitor such as China is testing such a weapon system in a clandestine way,’ he said. ‘It’s an indication of how the character of conflict is changing. There’s enough evidence that shows this needs to be investigated.’
Some scientists say pesticides could be to blame, or some form of psychosomatic illness. Others suggest mass hysteria. There are, however, at least two factors indicating that a foreign power – most likely Russia – is behind the Havana Syndrome. The first is that the American authorities seem to be covering up the cause, which suggests a foreign government might be involved.
Earlier this year, America’s National Academies of Sciences presented the State Department – the US equivalent of the Home Office – with a study that looked at all the possible causes. The State Department has refused to release it. The CIA has conducted its own inquiry and is said to have concluded that Russian agents got physically close to CIA operatives who suffered from the ‘Thing’ in Poland, Australia, Taiwan, and Georgia.
In two cases, operatives of the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, were staying in the same hotels at the same time. So far, though, CIA head Gina Haspel has preferred to sit on the report.
The second reason for suspecting the Russians is more straightforward: they have done it before. For more than a quarter of a century, from 1953 to late 1979, the Soviets bombarded the US embassy in Moscow with microwave radiation that resulted in numerous American officials being found with abnormal white cell counts, causing severe health problems.
Three ambassadors died prematurely from cancer. What became known as the ‘Moscow Signal’ attack was covered up by the Americans, who decided not to tell members of the embassy staff until 1972. The attacks were not revealed to the public until 1976.
In 1979 James Schumaker, the embassy’s Political Officer, was told his white cell count was much higher than normal, and by 1985 he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). It went into remission by 1999. ‘I don’t know how I got CLL, or why it gradually disappeared,’ he said. ‘In the back of my mind, however, I have always considered the Moscow microwaves to be a prime suspect.’
Schumaker was lucky. Recent research by Jose Martinez, of the Technical University of Cartagena in Spain, found that at least three US ambassadors to Moscow died of cancer at relatively young ages.
They included Charles Bohlen, 69; Llewellyn Thompson, 67; and Walter Stoessel, ambassador from 1974 to 1976, who died in 1986, aged just 66. Ironically, it was Stoessel who was adamant that the ‘Moscow Signal’ should be publicised.
So what were the Soviets doing? One theory is that the microwaves were being used to trigger listening devices secretly installed in the embassy. Another suggests the radiation was caused by a Soviet attempt to jam the Americans’ roof top devices that eavesdropped on Soviet officials in their cars.
If the Russians are bombarding foreign diplomats and intelligence operatives with some form of radiation, why are they doing it? And with what? Is Havana Syndrome caused by an electronic attempt either to hack into or to activate communication devices? Or is the motive pure aggression?
As to the nature of the device itself, that again is hard to say – although it may be similar to what the Chinese used against the Indian troops in August.
A memorandum from the US National Security Agency in 2014, suggests there was intelligence from 2012 indicating an unnamed country – most likely to be Russia – possessed a ‘high-powered microwave system weapon that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate, or kill an enemy over time and without leaving evidence’, and that this weapon is ‘designed to bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system’.
Short of destroying such a device, the only alternative is to ‘jam’ it.
‘It’s all about taking control of the electromagnetic spectrum,’ says Mr Ellwood.
‘The process would be similar to the system in place in London and Birmingham, which can detect the sound of a gunshot breaking the sound barrier, and then triangulate as to where the noise came from with a lot of accuracy.
‘And, yes, we are developing that sort of capability to use against these new forms of weapon.’
The American DEW is thought to be known as MEDUSA – which stands for Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio – and it beams microwaves that are turned into sound inside the head. It is not thought to be hazardous and could potentially be used as a form of crowd control.
If the Americans – or indeed the British – have a more powerful and dangerous version, then it is being kept firmly under wraps.
In the meantime, perhaps the State Department and the CIA should look back to what their forebears may have done in January 1979, when a fire mysteriously swept through a block of flats opposite the US Embassy in Moscow.
The following day, the radiation levels at the embassy had fallen to zero. By July, the microwaves were detected again, only for another mysterious fire to sweep through the same block in October.
After that, the microwaves stopped for good.