A series of successful tests have boosted chances that the Defense Department will deploy a new “nonlethal” crowd-control weapon to Iraq next year.
But it appears doubtful that nonlethal weapons — including electromagnetic radiation guns, acoustic devices, lasers and tear gases — will become pervasive in combat zones in the foreseeable future, experts contend. Although the Pentagon has tested nonlethal weapons and has offered evidence that they are relatively safe, the long-term consequences of their employment has yet to be studied. While some military commanders praise nonlethal weapons as valuable tools that can prevent civilian deaths, others are told by their lawyers that the potential risks and liabilities from using these weapons outweigh their benefits.
The Defense Department defines non-lethal weapons as those that are “explicitly designed and primarily employed so as to incapacitate personnel or materiel while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment.”
Unlike conventional lethal weapons that destroy their targets principally through blast, penetration and fragmentation, non-lethals are intended to cause “relatively reversible effects,” according to Pentagon documents.
Supporters of nonlethal weapons assert that these technologies offer alternatives to lethal force that are much needed in wars such as Iraq, where combatants are hard to discriminate from innocent civilians. Sometimes, a soldier needs something in between “shout” and “shoot,” said Marine Corps Col. Kirk Hymes, director of the Defense Department’s joint nonlethal weapons directorate.
The moniker “nonlethal” may be a misnomer, however, because these weapons can be misapplied and cause death, Hymes said. Taser electroshock stun guns are one example of a weapon that was designed to be nonlethal but can be deadly.
“The term nonlethal does not mean zero mortality or non-permanent damage; these are goals and not guarantees of these weapons,” the Pentagon’s policy states.
The Defense Department has deployed various forms of nonlethal weapons and munitions for many years, and continues to fund research into more futuristic technologies — including ray guns that can fry the electronics of a suspect vehicle and foul-smelling chemicals that would help thwart criminal acts.
These weapons have been a tough sell, however, because they are poorly understood and have sparked conspiracy theories, said William R. Graham, former science advisor to President Ronald Reagan who served as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Graham credited the Defense Department for pushing the technology forward and for instituting the use of nonlethal weapons as alternatives to deadly force. But he cautioned that further research and more widespread education about nonlethal weapons is necessary if the Pentagon is to avert an Agent Orange-like debacle.
Nonlethal weapons that emit radiation could have long-term effects both on the targets and the shooters, but that is not yet known, Graham said at a Capitol Hill conference sponsored by the George C. Marshall Institute.
Graham said he once asked a four-star military commander whether he favored the use of nonlethal weapons. The general responded that he did, but that his lawyers told him he should not, according to Graham.
Perceptions and misconceptions abound regarding nonlethal weapons, he noted. There are also key questions for which the Pentagon and other agencies have failed to provide clear answers. Do all lasers blind? Is tear gas a treaty-banned chemical agent? Could nonlethal weapons be used for torture?
“Even the simplest objection, no matter how real or imagined, could derail this program,” Graham said. “Even when they are not used for torture, those claims will be made. Psychological effects will be claimed.”
The nonlethal weapons program should glean lessons from the Food and Drug Administration, which was blamed for failing to predict the detrimental long-term effects of the arthritis drug Vioxx, said Graham. “If long term effects occur, we should know in advance and prepare,” he said. “They should be included in the rules of engagement.”
Hymes said he remains optimistic that nonlethal weapons will gain more acceptance, despite the political backlash.
“If we can develop a technology that does what it’s advertised to do, the policy will align,” he said. “Folks just don’t accept transformational technologies in a heartbeat. They have to be educated.”
Hymes said the Defense Department expects to deploy a millimeter-wave “active denial system” to Iraq next year. The crowd-control weapon, which directs electromagnetic radiation toward the subjects, causes a painful heat sensation but no permanent harm, Hymes said.
Steven Bucci, deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said he sees growing needs for nonlethal weapons in domestic operations such as disaster response and pandemic scenarios. As has been proved in Iraq, he said, “you can’t win hearts and minds with lethal options.”
Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Defense Department deployed 72,000 military and National Guard troops, and none had nonlethal weapons. “They only deployed with lethal options, which is bad business,” Bucci said at the conference. “We need non-lethal options to deal with our own citizens … In nearly every homeland defense civil support scenario, one of the main mission criteria is the mandate to minimize or eliminate casualties and collateral damage to property.”
The Defense Department recently agreed to provide $80 million to the National Guard for new riot gear, which would include several types of nonlethal weapons and munitions.
The office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics currently is working on a “non-lethal weapons capabilities roadmap,” Bucci said. Overseeing the policy issues is the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
Bucci’s boss, Assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense Paul McHale, has been an avid supporter of nonlethal weapons, he said. “He understands we will use this domestically. He wants our people to be trained and skilled.”
Bucci insisted that the wider use of non-lethal weapons has been hampered by poor marketing. “We have to develop a strategic communications plan. We are really bad at that. We can sell anything we want in America but we can’t sell this?”
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