Bang! You're incapacitated

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

Imagine a war where hardly anybody gets killed.

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.

No one predicts an end to machine guns and hand grenades, tanks and bombers.

"Nonlethal weapons are about pragmatic application of force, not a peace movement," says John Alexander, a retired Army colonel and former head of nonlethal defense programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

But the idea is to keep that application of force at a lower level than typically is the case when the shooting starts.

"A nonlethal weapon has to produce an effect on a target that is both short-term and reversible," says Dr. John, a chemical engineer with the Sandia National Laboratories who chaired the NRC study.

Weapons designed to be less than lethal have been around for years: rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas. Mostly, they've been used by police forces rather than the military.

But especially since the end of the cold war, when US military forces found themselves spending much time trying to keep the peace in dangerous places like Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti, nonlethal weapons have made more sense for them as well.

Foreseen on the immediate horizon are what defense experts call "Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain" (MOUT) - violent street fighting, in plain language. Retired Gen. Charles Krulak, former commandant of the Marine Corps, calls this "the three-block war."

"In one moment in time, our service members will be feeding and clothing displaced refugees - providing humanitarian assistance," he says. "In the next moment, they will be holding two warring tribes apart - conducting peacekeeping operations. Finally, they will be fighting a highly lethal mid-intensity battle. All within three city blocks."

Colonel Alexander, author of "Future War: Non-Lethal Weapons in Twenty-First-Century Warfare," sees the same scenario being played out in terrorist events. "We're going to end up having to combat terrorist cells in major metropolitan areas, and one of the things we're going to have to do is discriminate between combatants and noncombatants," he says.

Opponents see several major problems with nonlethal weapons.

"Within the framework of law and with independent oversight, I have no problem in principle with nonlethal weapons," says Steven Aftergood, who heads a project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. "Unfortunately, there is reason to question whether either of these conditions is being met today."

"Parts of the program - which includes a diverse array of technologies - seem to be on auto-pilot and utterly without public accountability," says Mr. Aftergood. "Likewise, it seems questionable whether all of the chemical and biological nonlethal weapons programs are formally compliant with the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Biological Weapons Convention."

To some humanitarian organizations, such weaponry is associated with repressive regimes.

Regarding electroshock stun weapons, Amnesty International reports: "This is a fast-growing industry, whose products are often not properly tested and many of whose clients are well known to have used the products to routinely and systematically torture men, women and children.... Yet many governments - including the USA, which is the largest producing country - allow this trade."

One might think that humanitarian groups would favor non-lethal weapons in war if these would ultimately leave fewer people maimed, killed, and displaced. But they don't agree that fewer casualties result. In fact, many argue that such weapons lower the threshold for initial aggression, eventually leading to more suffering.

Critics of the recent National Research Council study on nonlethal weapons are especially concerned about starting a new arms race in chemical and biological weapons.

The report, says University of California microbiologist Mark Wheelis, "contains a number of serious errors of law and science that lead it to irresponsible and dangerous recommendations."

In response, supporters of nonlethal weapons say decades-old treaties concerning chemical and biological weapons are virtually unenforceable, and that the authors never envisioned a time when such substances could be designed to prevent loss of life.

"Would you accept speed limits based on technology that's 100 years old?" asks Alexander.

It seems likely, in any case, that research and development in the field will accelerate, with perhaps profound results for warfare and war prevention.

Writing in the Naval War College Review, Army National Guard Lt. Col. Margaret-Anne Coppernoll predicts that "the introduction of nonlethal weapons on the battlefield will be as significant as the introduction of gunpowder during the European Renaissance."

The technology may be "Star Wars" and the new battlefield set in a civilian scene. But the idea is more than 2,000 years old. In the 4th century BC, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu put it this way: "Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."

Staff writer Kim Campbell contributed to this article.

Nonlethal Technologies

Conductive Particles

Particles that can induce short circuits in electrical or electronic equipment.

Depolymerizing Agents

Chemicals that cause polymers to dissolve or decompose.

Liquid-Metal Embrittlement Agents

Agents that change the molecular structure of base metals or alloys, significantly reducing their strength.

Nonnuclear Electromagnetic Pulse

Pulse generators producing gigawatts of power that could be used to explode ammunition dumps or paralyze electronic systems.

High-Powered Microwave

Generators that produce microwave pulses similar to electromagnetic pulses. Microwave frequencies may have antipersonnel applications that can cause pain or incapacitation.

Pol Contaminators

Additives that cause fuel to jell or solidify, making it unusable.


Acids that corrode or degrade structural materials.

Super Lubricants

Substances that cause lack of traction.


Very low-frequency sound generators that could be tuned to incapacitate people.


Sticky or space-filling material that can impede mobility or deny access to equipment.

Isotropic Radiators

Conventional weapons that produce a flash that can dazzle people or optical sensors.


Low-energy lasers that temporarily blind people or disable optical or infrared systems.

Calmative Agents

Chemical substances designed to temporarily incapacitate people.

Source: 'Non-Lethal Technologies: Implications for Military Strategy,' by Joseph Siniscalchi, Colonel, USAF

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