`Nonlethal' Weapons, James Bond Style
Technology allows military, police to harmlessly subdue agressors
BOSTON — FROM the dirt paths of Mogadishu to the wide boulevards of Los Angeles, peacekeeping has grown complicated. Incidents like the Rodney King beating and the deaths of unarmed civilians in Somalia - both played out in full view of television cameras - have prompted American soldiers and police to search for creative ways to subdue aggressors.
Under a memorandum of understanding signed in March, the departments of Justice and Defense have joined in an effort to develop a new class of ``less than lethal'' or ``nonlethal'' weapons. The effort, approved by Congress in July, will receive between $20 million and $37 million next year for development of the most promising projects.
Some of these technologies sound like contraptions James Bond might pull from his haversack. Take, for instance, sticky foam. This system, developed by the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., is being adapted for use in prisons. ``As often as 80 times a month in some prisons, an inmate will refuse to be handcuffed to be moved from his cell,'' says Tom Goolsby, project engineer at Sandia. ``Eventually, officers have to go in. They suit up in body armor, with shields and batons, and physically subdue the individual. In the process, people get injured.''
Mr. Goolsby explains that with sticky foam, one shooter with a 20-lb. gun fueled by pressurized nitrogen can ``glue that inmate to floor or the cell wall'' without injuring him or her.
Another defensive technology under consideration is ``Lifeguard,'' a bullet-detection system developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in California. According to Thomas Karr, the program's director, Lifeguard uses an infrared censor to detect the firing of a gun and traces the path of the bullet back to its source. Mounted on a building or a vehicle, he says, Lifeguard uses a camera with a telephoto lens to click a photograph of the shooter within half a second and sends it, via fax, to military or police headquarters.
``Traditionally, snipers had all the advantages on the battlefield,'' Karr says. ``With Lifeguard, the gunner immediately reveals himself.''
AT the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho, engineers are working on a barrier strip containing hollow needles that, when armed and placed in front of a fleeing vehicle, deflates tires slowly, reducing the likelihood of accidents and prolonged high-speed chases.
In response to the number of police officers killed each year with their own revolvers by assailants, another Idaho team aims to develop a handgun that can only be fired by its owner.
``All this makes so much common sense, I can't believe we haven't done it already,'' says US Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado and chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Research and Development for the House Armed Services Committee.
According to foreign-policy analysts, this class of weapons fit the post-Cold War shift from the containment of communism to the containment of conflicts.
``For thousands of years, it was kill or be killed,'' says Janet Morris, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. ``Now, if we kill people, we risk losing the public-relations war.'' Chris Morris, also a CSIS fellow, explains that less-than-lethal weapons can keep a force on the moral high ground by ``creating a paradigm in which you defend yourself by preserving resources all around.''
Designers say these technologies will help American forces deal with ``transnationals'' like Colombian drug cartels that operate in many nations, and tribal or ``subnational'' conflicts like the civil strife in Somalia where the goal is not conquest but the delivery of humanitarian aid.
``You don't want to kill the people you're trying to feed,'' says John Alexander of the Los Alamos National Labs in Los Alamos, N.M., ``but you don't want your troops to die, either.''
Nonetheless, some analysts are skeptical. ``Nonlethal weapons is a misleading term because many of the weapons could in fact be lethal,'' says Steven Aftergood, a fellow at the Federation of American Sciences in Washington, D.C. Mr. Aftergood notes that any number of blinding lasers, immobilizing gases, anti-materiel devices, or mind-control machines could have deadly effects.
Aftergood adds that the program should not be considered to be a revolution in warfare. ``Warfare is intrinsically bloody,'' he says, ``and none of the technologies proposed will change this. ''
Pentagon spokesman Don Henry says that the department is pursuing these weapons not as a means to end bloodshed, but to be used in concert with lethal force to ``increase the number of options available.''
The impact of less-than-lethal technology will be far greater on domestic law enforcement, says David Boyd, head of the National Institute of Justice, a research division of the Justice department.
Mr. Boyd - whose office is reviewing the technology that will determine which projects will receive federal support - traces these weapons' origin to 1985 when the United States Supreme Court determined that a Tennessee police officer used excessive force by shooting a suspect. A greater push resulted, he says, from the Rodney King beating.
``Police would love to have an option other than the .38 caliber revolver to stop a demented guy with a knife,'' Boyd says.
Hurdles facing the program, he says, include choosing effective technologies and selling law enforcement agencies and the public on the idea. ``No technology we put out there is absolutely peaceful,'' he says. ``If applied in a certain way, even a water gun could cause problems.''