Non-Lethal Warfare's Promises and Problems

A NEW report from the Council on Foreign Relations raises shimmering possibilities of taking the killing out of warfare, of fighting bloodless but decisive battles. The report is called ''Non-Lethal Technologies: Military Options and Implications.'' It was produced by an independent task force of 21 people who have had broad national security experience. It deserves more attention than it is likely to receive. Are there ways to deal with threats to peace without resorting to the traditional economic sanctions or military force? The report suggests there are.

Most of them are in the realm of electronic warfare. For some, the technology already exists; for others, it is clearly in sight.

A country's communications might be taken over. Not just interfered with, taken over, so that instead of the local government's propaganda, radio and television stations in Baghdad or Belgrade would broadcast United States or United Nations propaganda to the consternation of the resident dictator and the edification of his people.

A country's banking system could be disrupted: no electronic funds transfers or credit card charges; or worse, phony ones.

Power grids could be sabotaged through electronic interference with switching stations. Air traffic control could be manipulated to cause chaos at best, carnage at worst.

Obnoxious sounds or smells could be generated to induce people to leave an area. (Noise was one of the ways the US Army tried to lure Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega out of the Vatican Embassy in Panama.)

Foams or nets could be used to prevent or inhibit movement - potentially a benign way to end a riot.

These and other possibilities are put forward as kinder, more convenient substitutes for military force or economic sanctions. (Achieving agreement on these new techniques might prove cumbersome.)

But the nonlethal technologies still rely on coercion (that is their purpose, after all) and they lend themselves to covert application. They are tailor-made for the dirty-tricks people at the CIA, and this is why they ought to be the subject of full public discussion during their development phase.

One of the problems is what the Council on Foreign Relations task force calls the ''slippery slope.'' Put another way, it's easier to get into a bear trap than out of one. The US has had ample experience (Central America, Vietnam) to demonstrate this principle. If a technique is available, there is a temptation to use it, especially if this can be done covertly; and then if it doesn't work, there is a temptation to do more. The safeguard against this is firm and clear-eyed political control, from Congress as well as from the White House, but history teaches that such control is not always exercised.

There is no inherent reason why these nonlethal technologies need to be applied covertly. Because covert action is always easier to initiate, that would probably be the inclination of the government, but in fact many of the new techniques might well be more effective if carried out publicly. A public approach would lend itself to a carrot-and-stick policy as well as to multilateralism.

This would make the slope less slippery. It would enhance political control, and it would facilitate negotiation. But the slope would still be a slope.

There is something else wrong with these nonlethal scenarios. The US is more vulnerable to them than most of the countries against which it might be tempted to use them. Electronic sabotage won't do very much in Somalia or Rwanda, but it could be catastrophic in New York or Washington. Other countries are working to develop the same kinds of technologies described here, and nuclear proliferation has taught us that you can't keep knowledge secret.

US vulnerability exists, and will continue to exist, regardless of what the United States does about this kind of technological development. Depending on the circumstances, the threat of retaliation might or might not restrain us from engaging in nonlethal warfare, but it should certainly encourage us to continue to develop the capability for such warfare. The more we know about it, the better able we will be to protect ourselves against threats.

Meanwhile, it is good to know that the Defense Department has established a Non-Lethal Weapons Steering Committee, but that is only a modest first step.

At a minimum, the State Department and CIA ought to be involved, possibly with Justice and Commerce as well. This ought to be overseen in the executive branch by the National Security Council staff. And Congress had better start paying attention through the intelligence, armed services, and foreign affairs committees.

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