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Bang! You're incapacitated

How do nonlethal weapons work and why aren't we using them?

By Staff writere of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 2002

Imagine a war where hardly anybody gets killed.

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Not a giant game of paintball or capture-the-flag, exactly, but a conflict where the most crucial weapons make an opponent simply faint or throw up or fall down with leg cramps - unable to fight back but not seriously harmed, and willing, if not eager, to surrender. Or a battlefield where enemy tanks slide around harmlessly like bumper cars at a carnival, where an opposing force's electronic gear gets zapped and conks out without having to be blown up.

Sound far out? A mad scientist's dream? A peace advocate's fantasy?

As the United States fights a war on terrorism and prepares for possible war with Iraq, development and advocacy of nonlethal weapons are accelerating. Major defense contractors are involved. Military professionals trained to be able to kill people and destroy things are seeing the benefits. The government-sponsored National Research Council recently urged the military services to give greater priority to such devices.

"Nonlethal weapons are an additional way to provide greater security for military bases and protect our forces," says Miriam John, who chaired the committee of experts that wrote the NRC report.

The interest is being driven by two things: changes in fighting methods to match a new set of military challenges including terrorism, involvement in other nation's civil wars, and military presence in countries that have descended into anarchy; and steady advances in technology.

Among the new kinds of weapons being researched and in some cases developed:

• High-powered "active denial" microwave systems that can inflict intense pain for brief periods without killing or gravely injuring the person. With a range of several hundred yards, they could fend off crowds of rock throwers (or pick out a single sniper among civilians) without resorting to deadly force.

• Electromagnetic pulse weapons that foul up radars, radios, computers, navigational devices, and other equipment by destroying semiconductors.

• Materials such as "sticky foam" to bog down soldiers or equipment and special lubricants to send enemy vehicles spinning. These are called "stick-ems" and "slick-ems."

• Biological agents that can "eat" oil, plastics, and other material essential to an enemy's gear. The idea here is to pattern the "bugs" now used to help clean up oil spills. As one advocate says, "Organisms don't care whether it's an oil slick on the ocean or a national oil supply."

• Calmatives - gases that can temporarily incapacitate a squad of soldiers, terrorists holed up with hostages, or an angry crowd.

• Malodorants - chemicals that mimic the most revolting smells (rotting food or human waste) and can disperse attackers like a skunk at a garden party.

• Low-frequency acoustical weapons that can nauseate or disorient people.

• Barrier and entanglement devices, such as might have prevented the small boat loaded with explosives from severely damaging the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen two years ago.

"Nonlethals fill the gap between the breakdown of diplomacy and the full-scale use of conventional weapons," says Capt. Shawn Turner of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, which is run by the Marine Corps.

So far, the US Defense Department is spending only tens of millions of dollars a year on such technology - pocket lint to the Pentagon. But with an eye to future military conflicts, laboratories and major defense contractors are investing far more. And while the nation's professional warriors were once quite dubious about nonlethal weapons (just as they had grumbled over peacekeeping missions), they now acknowledge a world of terrorism and failed states where much of their work will involve civilian settings and a heightened need to keep casualties to a minimum.