Force Without Fatalities

ince the advent of modern warfare, the inventors of bullets, artillery shells, bombs, missiles and other devices have rated the effectiveness of their new weapons by their "probability of kill"-in terms of blast, penetration, fragmentation and other measures of lethality.
The U.S. military is trying to develop an arsenal of non-lethal weapons.s

But that may be changing, at least to a limited extent. Today, some U.S. military officers, civilian officials and contractors are focused on developing a new arsenal of weapons designed to avoid fatalities or permanent injuries. In an era of increased U.S. peacekeeping operations, they are striving to provide innovative technologies that will help mission commanders exert control but minimize casualties and collateral damage.

The Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, a small but ambitious multi-service unit under Marine Corps leadership, is leading the effort. Steven Metz, a strategist at the Army War College, says non-lethality could play a key role in the Defense Department's "revolution in military affairs," which has focused largely on applying modern computerized technology to warfighting. Metz and other observers say the directorate is competently managed but has stalled for lack of strong, senior-level policy support at the Pentagon and in Congress. In addition, a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations says the effort to produce non-lethal weapons is seriously underfunded, with a budget averaging only about $25 million a year.

A 1999 report by the task force concluded, "While the military services and parts of the Pentagon have been examining non-lethal possibilities for years, weapons development and thinking about usage has been very slow. Non-lethal warfare has received low priority in the Department of Defense, as evidenced by insufficient research and development funding, inadequate attention to the implications for military doctrine, barriers to information transfer among the military services and between DoD and the relevant civilian agencies, and DoD resistance to complying with legislative direction. Bureaucratic inertia and the lack of civilian leadership, despite some efforts from the National Security Council, have compounded the problem."

Non-lethal weapons run the gamut from rubber bullets and beanbag shotgun rounds to high-tech nets designed to ensnare people, pepper spray, slippery foams, olfactory agents, stun guns and lasers. The Pentagon is exploring more exotic technologies, as well, such as high-power microwave weapons. Recently the Marine Corps and Air Force unveiled plans for a vehicle-mounted directed energy weapon specifically designed for dispersing hostile crowds, using an intense microwave beam that causes sharp burning sensations on the skin.

Protecting Lives

Marine Col. George P. Fenton, director of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, explains in stark terms the need for such non-lethal capabilities on U.S. peacekeeping missions, to deal with situations involving civilians. "You can look at the Somalias, the Haitis, the Bosnia-Herzegovinas, the East Timors, the Kosovos-the list goes on. What do you see there? And how are these operations typically characterized? Masses of human beings. And here's the sad part of it-they're being used for shields.

"So how do you deal with that?" Fenton asks. "This is where you get into these other [non-lethal] capabilities. One is being able to have weapons that might influence the motivational behavior of a crowd. How do you keep a crowd from turning into a mob? Is there a way to disband it without killing people? . . . We're looking at ways cleverly to be able to do this."

According to Fenton-a blunt-spoken infantry officer whose military career has included involvement with operations in Somalia, northern Iraq and Southwest Asia-the Marine Corps now has 30 "capability sets," each consisting of enough non-lethal weapons to outfit a 200-man rifle company. In the next six years, the Army will acquire enough non-lethal equipment to outfit 30 units.

The military views non-lethal weapons as a way to augment, rather than replace, lethal force. "We'll never use non-lethals by themselves," Fenton says. "Would you want your son or daughter in harm's way and all we gave them is a rubber bullet? I think that's baloney. So do our commanders in the field."

The non-lethal weapons program dates back to March 1991, when then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney established a Non-Lethal Warfare Study under Defense Undersecretary Paul D. Wolfowitz. This group, chaired by Zalmay Khalilzad, assistant deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy planning, became convinced of the revolutionary potential of non-lethality and advocated a non-lethal defense program modeled after the Strategic Defense Initiative. Donald Yockey, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, opposed the new initiative and argued that the Pentagon's existing programs could handle non-lethal weapons. Interest in non-lethality was revived by U.S. interventions in Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia. There, a Marine Corps force was dispatched in 1995 under Operation United Shield to safely withdraw a United Nations peacekeeping force. At the request of their commander, Lt. Gen. Anthony Zinni, some of the Marines were specially trained and equipped with non-lethal weapons. Zinni became an outspoken advocate of the approach, saying, "Our experience in Somalia with non-lethal weapons offered ample testimony to the tremendous flexibility they offer to warriors on the field of battle."

Coordinating the Effort

In July 1996, the Defense Department called for a joint service non-lethal weapons program to be led by the commandant of the Marine Corps. Non-lethal weapons were defined as those "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." The Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate at Quantico, Va., established in January 1997, has a staff of two Marine officers, one Air Force officer, a Marine lance corporal and 12 civilians. Its motto is "Pax Custimus, Vita Custimus" ("Safeguarding Peace, Safeguarding Life").

The Defense Department program is coordinated with non-lethal weapons development efforts at other agencies, including the Less-Than-Lethal Technologies Program at the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice. David G. Boyd, director of the institute's Office of Science and Technology, says Justice has been working on non-lethal devices since 1987. The overall aim, he says, is "to allow us to subdue uncooperative subjects without injury to the subject, any innocent bystander, or any law enforcement officer."

Military experts agree it's important to develop non-lethal weapons, but they give the Defense joint services program mixed reviews. Metz, a research professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, writes in a new book, Non-Lethal Weapons: Technological and Operational Prospects (Jane's Information Group, 2000), that while non-lethal weapons have existed since the beginning of armed conflict, "the past 10 years have seen an explosion of interest in them."

"Future war will be an act of theater as much as physical combat," Metz says. "In order to sustain public support for the use of force, governments will be forced to go to great lengths to limit its destructiveness as much as possible." The current "revolution in military affairs," he says, emphasizes the use of precision-guided munitions and other advances in computerized technology. The United States and other countries should begin pursuit of a second, parallel movement, Metz says, "where non-lethality is a central, defining characteristic." Metz says the management of the non-lethal weapons directorate has been competent, but that the program lacks senior-level support. The Marine Corps has "put a series of effective, hard-charging colonels in charge of it," he says. "They've done a lot of work in terms of consciousness-raising. . . . A lot of their focus is at the programmatic level rather than at the policy and strategy levels. . . . But I think that to really get anywhere, you also need somebody at the undersecretary level . . . who is exploring integrating these into the wider strategy."

The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, which shapes policy for non-lethal weapons, "has always been kind of a forced stepchild," Metz says. "Basically, DoD didn't want it. Congress made them form it back in the 1980s." He adds: "I've argued all along that for non-lethals to really mature as a part of the military arsenal, there has to be somebody really senior and some people in Congress to really seed the idea, to really become the patrons for it. Right now there's a lot of interest at the colonel level." Metz says the program had a fairly senior patron when Zinni was commander of the U.S. Central Command. Zinni retired last summer. Metz says the program has the potential to make substantial strides. But, he says, "we're sort of at a fork in the road, where if the people who believe in these things are able to find high-level patrons and put together a constituency inside the military and outside, that we might take that track in the road," Metz says. "But I think it's at least equally possible that non-lethal weapons could remain completely peripheralized."

Human Rights Questions

Some human rights activists and groups have expressed concern about the development of non-lethal weapons, saying that they could be misused by the military and police-particularly by repressive regimes-in exerting social control and could violate international law as well. This concern is reflected in a book, Non-Lethal Weapons: A Fatal Attraction? (Zed Books, 1997) by Nick Lewer and Steven Schofield, researchers at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom. They write that "an obvious danger is that civil security becomes increasingly militarized as the police deploy a sophisticated array of weapons and use military-style tactics and operational behavior." Lewer and Schofield also say "one great danger with non-lethal weapons is that, quite simply, they ride a coach and horses through both the spirit and the letter of major weapons conventions. These include the U.N. Inhumane Weapons Convention and the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions."

William M. Arkin, senior military adviser to Human Rights Watch, a major human rights organization, says he has little concern about basic non-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets and pepper spray. However, he does worry about the military's high-tech programs-particularly acoustic weapons and high-power microwave weapons. "I believe that weapon systems need to undergo a rigorous legal, political, humanitarian evaluation before they are deployed," Arkin says. "Like blinding lasers, like anti-personnel land mines, like cluster bombs, there are weapons out there which are on the edge of whether or not they cause unnecessary suffering or are indiscriminate or fail to comply with our obligations under international humanitarian law."

Regarding the military's projected use of the newly announced microwave directed-energy weapon for crowd dispersal, Arkin comments: "What about children in the crowd? What about pregnant women and the elderly? We have developed a non-lethal weapon which causes pain. What happens when someone continues to walk toward the source of the high-power microwave? What happens when panic ensues in a crowd as a result of high-power microwave? What happens when it's focused on someone's eyes?"

Hopping the Hurdles

Among the most ardent supporters of non-lethal weapons is John B. Alexander, a retired Army colonel whose book Future War (St. Martin's Press, 1999), explores the role of non-lethal weapons in 21st century warfare. In his book, Alexander says the "high degree of instability at flash points around the world has a direct bearing on the development and deployment of non-lethal weapons. It seems clear that use of force will be required to resolve, however temporarily, disputes in many areas. Peace support operations and humanitarian missions are likely to increase."

Alexander says that when the Pentagon started the non-lethal weapons program, the directorate was "given a relatively small amount of money and a small number of people." Now, he says, the organization is ramping up its efforts.

The 1999 Council on Foreign Relations study of non-lethal technologies was conducted by a 17-member task force chaired by Richard L. Garwin, senior fellow for science and technology at the council and a former IBM research scientist. Overall, the panel endorsed the findings of a 1995 council study that said, "non-lethal weapons have the potential for providing new strength for diplomacy, new credibility for deterrence, new flexibility for the military [and] new strategic options for policy-makers." At the same time, the task force criticized several parts of the non-lethal weapons effort:

  • Limited funding. "The DoD and the services have not yet made the investment required to realize the benefits that non-lethal weapons offer."
  • Uncoordinated policy. "Department of Defense policy for non-lethal weapons is inadequate in practice. The substantial barriers that exist between the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, with its focus on research and development for tactical applications, and the apparently larger Air Force and Navy classified programs, constitute an impediment to the desired single, optimum non-lethal weapons program that is required to exploit the full potential of these weapons."
  • Lack of synergy with other programs. The task force says the Defense Department needs "a program of exploration, development, experimentation, demonstration and training to provide meaningful integration of information warfare, psychological warfare and strategic non-lethal weapons, at a level expanded to some $100 million per year."

Fenton says the joint directorate received a $6 million increase from Congress this fiscal year, for a total budget of $29 million. "I would tell you that we compete, just as any other activity does compete within the Department of Defense. And typically what do we compete for? Resources-people, time and money," he says. "On balance, I think, honestly, my own view is that we've done an exceptionally good job of doing that."

On the question of policy coordination, Fenton says, "There are a number of programs-tactical, operational, strategic-level programs. Some are unclassified, some are classified, some might be highly classified. We have insights into those programs." As for a possible combination of non-lethal weapons with information warfare and psychological warfare programs, the directorate's chief says: "We have chosen within the Department of Defense not to put all of that into one entity. That doesn't mean that we don't talk, share and exchange information." Christopher Morris, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations task force and vice president of M2 Technologies, a support contractor to the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, says that since the task force issued its report in 1999 "there has been moderate improvement in communications and in the degree of cooperation DoD is giving to put teeth and reality into the congressional language" mandating the program. Another member of the task force, who asked not to be identified, says he believes that most of the criticisms presented by the task force report are still valid.

Steven Aftergood, a military analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, says the directorate is doing a "reasonable job" of managing the non-lethal weapons program under Marine Corps direction. "I think somebody had to step up and claim non-lethals as their own, and the Marines did it," he says. "It was important for the program to have a home in the bureaucracy, and arguably they make the most sense."

According to Aftergood, as recent strife between Palestinians and Israeli security forces has demonstrated, "the use of lethal force makes it more difficult to recover from a conflict, for those who want to recover and revert to a peaceful situation. . . . I was skeptical 10 years ago when people were starting to get gung-ho and suggesting that non-lethals might be the solution to all possible problems. I thought that the case was grotesquely overstated. But I've sort of come full circle and believe that there's an unmet need for effective, inexpensive, readily deployable non-lethal weapons."


Barton Reppert is a freelance writer based in the Washington area.
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