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Xtreme Defense

XADS President Pete Bitar with his
XADS President Pete Bitar with his "dazzler" laser. The Pentagon has bought 13 of the nonlethal weapons, which temporarily blind an enemy, for use by troops in Iraq. (Chris Hartlove)

The expo is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of America, but it's also a vision of its future: a nation mired in barriers and locks, fitted out with all-seeing sensors and closed-circuit television, where terrorism, as one company's slogan goes, "is reduced to a minor inconvenience."

Even among military trade shows, FPED is unique. With only five major companies left in the U.S. weapons market, most of today's military expos feature an orderly array of brightly colored PowerPoint briefings displayed next to plastic mockups of weapons. With so few companies, the jockeying of a typical trade show is absent.

FPED, in contrast, harks back to a different era: the 1980s and the Cold War, when an imminent threat of annihilation fueled a market full of companies competing for a slice of the Pentagon's budget. What started off after the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia as a show for a few dozen specialized companies has today grown to more than 500 vendors crowding two massive aircraft hangars and an entire airfield.

The counterterrorism business is booming. And for those who want to break into the market, FPED is the place. The expo was closed to the public, but representatives of law enforcement and military agencies crowded the grounds, shopping for the latest technology. Traffic into the huge base was backed up for more than two miles on the first day of the three-day show.

XADS's 10-by-10 booth was set up at the back of the first hangar; a table in front displayed an assortment of the company's latest products, including its full line of laser dazzlers. XADS had also added a new acoustic weapon called Screech, which true to its name emits an ear-piercing shriek designed to disperse crowds and cause headaches, Bitar said.

The most striking feature of the XADS booth, at first glance, was a framed poster, mounted on a pedestal, that Bitar called concept art. On it, dark, vaguely Middle Eastern-looking men attack a U.S. Embassy, only to writhe in pain as giant bolts of XADS lightning hit them. A graphic artist who draws for GI Joe and Spider-Man comics designed the poster.

But the star attraction was a simple black briefcase that Bitar promised would shoot lightning bolts. He and Fry placed the briefcase (innocuous-looking, if you ignored the pointed needle a few inches long sticking out the side) on top of a carpeted podium, plugged it into a wall socket and flipped a switch. Then they stood back.

Iridescent streaks of purple lightning snaked out of the briefcase, accompanied by the deafening rattle of what sounded like an M-16, and even in the noisy hangar, conversations momentarily ceased.

"It looks like something out of a 1950s movie," one onlooker commented.

Bitar's technology is based on a technique pioneered more than 100 years ago by the eccentric Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla. The StunStrike uses an electrical charge to break down the air in front of the weapon to create a path for sparks generated by a "resonant transformer," better known as a Tesla coil. Unlike a typical Tesla coil, however, Bitar's invention uses electronics to tune and direct the spark stream. It goes about four feet.

"We can tune it all the way down so it feels like broom bristles, and all the way up to knock you down," Bitar informed a group of gawkers.

Electricity that shoots out even a few feet is enough to grab people's attention. A small, wiry man wearing a CIA badge and a lanyard emblazoned with "In-Q-Tel," the agency's venture capital arm, stopped at the booth. He paused to look at the lightning, nodded approvingly and picked up a business card before moving on.

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