War Without Death

The military is gearing up for weapons that don't kill

By Corey S PowellApr 1, 1999 6:00 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Last December, armed rebels captured a group of U.S. Marines and held them hostage in a makeshift compound. Nearby, terrorist gunmen hid among local civilians, waiting for the arrival of additional American forces. The situation seemed headed for a stalemate until a second group of Marines showed up bearing exotic weapons that disabled the enemy soldiers without killing them. The weapons included microwave guns, sonic cannons, and disorienting laser strobes. The savior Marines stormed the compound without bloodshed, rescued their comrades, and escaped with minor casualties.

The story sounds too good to be true, and so it is. The battle was a field exercise at a Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, and the weapons were dummies. In this case, playacting was the only option available. Although military and police forces have long wished for guns and ammo that could stop the bad guys cold without putting them six feet under, "nonlethal weapons still do not exist in a form that serves a useful military function," says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.

The obstacles are more serious than just having to wait for the technology to catch up with the idea, says Colonel John Alexander, a former Green Beret and an expert on nonlethals. "The strategic use of nonlethal weapons is very complex and not well explored."

The U.S. experience during the famine-relief mission in Somalia underscores his point. In 1995, as the effort disintegrated into chaos, the commanding officer of the American forces called for nonlethal weapons to facilitate a smooth exodus. He received two kinds of fancy, novel nonlethals: an experimental sticky foam that could be sprayed from pressure-charged canisters resembling World War II flamethrowers, and high-powered lasers that could be used to disorient the enemy.

Rather than using the foam to incapacitate individual militiamen, the Marines sprayed the material to form barriers that would hold back hostile Somalian crowds. The barriers didn't help much. The locals quickly learned to clamber over the foam pilings with wooden planks. Part of the problem was that American soldiers had to be cautious when shooting the foam because it could have suffocated the same people they had come to feed.

Concerns about the possible blinding of Somalians with lasers limited the effectiveness of the other major new nonlethal weapon. The Marines finally decided to reduce the power of the lasers and used them merely to frighten people into thinking they had been targeted.

After Somalia, advocates of weapons that don't kill toned down their rhetoric. "They were making wild claims that this technology would do everything but cure the common cold," says Aftergood. "The limited field experience yielded a more realistic assessment." But Charles Swett, who advises on nonlethal weapons policy for the Department of Defense, remains bullish. "The fact that nonlethals weren't [widely] used is a sign of success," he argues, proving that the Somalians feared our technology. This year the Department of Defense has allocated about $99 million for nonlethal-weapons programs.

The money will be used to solve a confounding problem. Not only must nonlethals work as weapons, they must do their job gently enough to avoid what is sometimes called the CNN effect: as soon as Americans see televised images of bloody bodies, support for even reasonable peacekeeping missions evaporates. The CNN effect is one of the primary, but rarely mentioned, motivations for producing tools of warfare that don't result in loss of life. As unrealistic as it may seem, "there's hope that there is a way to solve problems without hurting anyone," says Harvey Sapolsky, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT.

Weapons that cause only disabilities may nevertheless be considered unacceptable if they lead to what Sapolsky calls "worse than lethal outcomes." In the ethics of warfare, some strategists consider a bullet through the brain better than permanent blindness or insanity (so hallucinogenic drugs are ruled out).

Still, the image of the perfect nonlethal weapon--a Star Trek-style phaser set on stun--is so powerful that no one has given up on the idea. This year the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is collaborating with the National Institute of Justice to develop a more sophisticated laser weapon than the one tested in Somalia. The idea is to create a "laser dazzler" that diffuses a beam just enough to avoid permanent eye damage. Not surprisingly, police forces are as interested in its development as the military is.

Versions of the sticky foam tested in Somalia are also alive. At Sandia National Laboratories, smaller, convenient pressurized backpacks pump out refined goo, though Swett now rejects it as too tough to control.

Similar problems plague sonic weapons, which blast high-intensity sound waves to make internal organs mighty uncomfortable. Unfortunately the line between nausea and death can be rather thin. Then there are the twin troubles that face these sonic devices: low-frequency sounds are difficult to aim because they tend to spread in all directions, and high-frequency sounds can cause permanent deafness.

In the realm of the really scary is a microwave gun under study at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that raises body temperature, provoking a debilitating fever. Just testing such a weapon raises safety issues, so team leader Clay Easterly has created a virtual-human computer model to "minimize the need for actual human subjects."

Most of the remaining nonlethal weapons, at least the ones the government is willing to acknowledge, rely on more benign approaches, like high-power electromagnetic pulse generators that could incapacitate the electronic controls in an escaping vehicle, or unmanned airplanes that could drop nets and rubber grenades to hold back a mob, or electric-shock generators that temporarily knock out interlopers.

Particularly odd but intriguing is the Odorous Substances Project of the Joint Non-lethal Weapons Directorate. The idea is to create unbearable stink bombs. Alexander thinks a smell assault, for example, might have worked well against the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that was attacked by U.S. cruise missiles last August. A stink bomb that leaves behind the smell of a ripe corpse would have allowed the salvage of some equipment from the facility but would have insured that the location remained unusable for some time.

No one really knows, of course, if any of these ideas will eventually prove effective. "Nonlethal weapons are a very appealing idea," Sapolsky says. But he suspects they will ultimately be more helpful to police forces than to military commanders.

Others are more skeptical. "I think nonlethal weapons are a fad," says Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, a former Army cavalry commander. Their appeal will fade quickly, he argues, as soon as the other side decides to up the ante with good old-fashioned lethal weapons: "We put some sticky goo on them, and they'll put a bullet through the head of a U.S. soldier." At that point, Swett confirms, we would return to deadly force.

"Nonlethal weapons fit in nicely with a deep-seated belief that there is a technological solution to all problems," Bacevich says. It's a seductive thought, he agrees, "but conflict in its essence is very interactive."

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.