WASHINGTON — SOMETIME in the next century the tanks of a rogue dictator may be roaring forward in the invasion of a neighbor - until they they hit a patch of road slimed with super-slick oil. Suddenly, 20-ton vehicles are crashing about like behemoth bumper cars.
Or perhaps the road is covered with glue-laced foam. The armor column slithers to a halt, its treads fouled beyond the point of mobility.
The plot of a 21st-century thriller or the musings of a deranged peacenik? Neither. This is the kind of scenario now being given serious thought by government and independent experts examining the potential uses of so-called nonlethal weapons.
Proponents believe that as the US confronts increasingly complex challenges in the post-cold war world, such as peacekeeping, ethnic wars or terrorism, it should be developing responses that bridge the gap between uncertain long-term economic sanctions and conventional military force, which carries enormous political and economic risks.
Such weapons might range from booby-trap oil and foam, to odor clouds pungent enough to send troops into head-long flight, to electronic methods of plunging the transporation and electricity networks of aggressor states into chaos.
"The recent examples of Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda, as well as the threat of state-supported terrorism, show the need for new options and credible deterrents. Scientific and technical advances in nonlethal technologies ... address this need," says a new report.
Annoying, but nonlethal
The report, issued last week by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the US armed services are separately researching some nonlethal technologies. But it says the government should integrate the programs while developing the political and military doctrines necessary for using nonlethal technologies.
"Each of the services has a center for communications warfare. But none has one for nonlethal weapons," says Malcolm Weiner, a banker and historian who chaired the study.
"I don't think there is a serious enough effort being made," says Edward "Shy" Meyer, a former Army chief of staff who participated in the study. "The services want tanks, airplanes, and ships. When you start talking nonlethal, you are talking about something that is relatively novel."
Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, a strong booster of nonlethal technologies, counters: "We're just in the initial stages of discovering the advantages of this kind of technology. I think there has been some concern that you can use this as a replacement for lethal force."
A group of senior Pentagon officials known as the Non-Lethal Weapons Steering Committee began in February 1994 to study the issue. But as of yet, "there has been no serious effort at the national level to incorporate the strategic and policy implications of nonlethal weapons in foreign policy or analysis," the report says.
Mr. Weiner says the Clinton administration's fiscal 1996 budget is the first to contain an unclassified expenditure - $37 million - for nonlethal weaponry. Funding for other nonlethal technologies are hidden in top-secret "black budgets," he says.
Some nonlethal technologies have already been deployed in the field. The US Marines who evacuated United Nations troops from Mogadishu, Somalia, in March were armed with - but did not use - movement-inhibiting foams and tear gas-laced suds. The substances would have been used to disperse crowds in which snipers were often hidden. Many experts believe that the killing of civilians by UN troops returning sniper fire stoked popular rage that helped undermine the UN mission.
The US is reportedly working on more exotic nonlethal measures. These are believed to include "enhancing sanctions" technologies that would be used to paralyze potential aggressor states by shutting down their electricity, computer, communications, and banking systems.
Supergluing the enemy
Work is also reportedly under way on devices that spread glue-like foams or thousands of tiny tacks on roads, or disperse bacteria that consume rubber or engine lubricants.
The Army has developed lasers that destroy optical targeting systems, but these are drawing fire from critics who say they can blind enemy soldiers.
The Council on Foreign Relations report examined a number of global hot spots in which nonlethal technologies might have been useful, including former Yugoslavia. It suggests they could have been employed in Serbia to stoke opposition to the policies of President Slobodan Milosevic.
The authors considered the possibility of "shorting out power, communications, air-control facilities, and television transmission" in Serbia and using oily or glue-like substances to disable the bridges across which Mr. Milosevic sent arms supplies to the Bosnian Serbs.
The report warns that nonlethal technologies carry some risks, including the creation of situations in which the US might be dragged into a crisis that could end in conventional warfare. The report also warns against the proliferation of nonlethal weapons, saying that Russia, Britain, France, Italy, and Israel are developing their own such technologies.