The Science of War: A new generation of nonlethal weapons may help rout mobs, subdue gunmen, even win wars without killing the innocent
Newsweek, Feb. 7, 1994 John Barry in Washington with Tom Morganthau in New York.
FACED WITH A MOB OF stone-throwing women and children whose ragged ranks concealed one or more snipers, Pakistani troops on a U.N. peace-keeping mission in Mogadishu last June opened fire and killed about 20 unarmed civilians which was probably just what Somalias rebel warlords hoped the Pakistanis would do. In Haiti last October, the mere threat of a dockside confrontation with a gang of gun-toting toughs was enough to prevent the landing of small force of U.S. military advisers. Then there’s the tragic finale ofthe FBI’s standoff with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas — which suggests that the problems of maintaining law and order without bloodshed are by no means confined to the Third World.
But what if U.S. or U.N. forces and what if the FBI had an arsenal of tricky, new-tech weapons that could rout a mob, find and subdue hidden gunmen or fill an enemy fortress. With a potent but harmless tranquilizer? What if American Globocops could keep the peace fight future wars without killing or injuring civilians? The possibility of a new generation of nonlethal weapons is now attracting serious attention at the Pentagon and. since the Waco tragedy, at the U.S. Department of Justice as well. And while we have not arrived at the point when U. S. troops can “set phasers on stun,” like Capt. James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, the era of nonlethal armaments is closer than most civilians realize. “The world is changing and our military’s role is changing,” says Dan Goure of Washington’s center for strategic and International Studies.”The capabilities they have don’t seem to match the new roles we see out there. There is a growing sense we need new tools.”
The search for new “tools” has spawned the first systematic effort to develop non-lethal weapons in U.S. military history. Newsweek has learned that in the wake of Somalia, Defense Under Secretary John Deutch has authorized a team of Pentagon officials to explore the feasibility of nonleathal weapons (NLWs) and the exotic technologies behind them. This team, headed by Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s director of tactical systems, aims to set up priority programs for NLWs that could be funded as early as 1995. The likely first choice, according to Newsweek sources, is a riot gun that would fire tiny beanbags. Beanbags should be safer than rubber bullets which can be lethal at close range, but they would still knock a man down.
According to a small but fervent group of visionaries who have been touting NLWs for years, this homely innovation may contain the seeds of military revolution. Non-lethals have a long history in warfare the ancient Greeks used smoke to conceal troop
movements around 425 B.C. — but they have almost always been used to help warriors kill and destroy. This is begining to change — primarily, as Goure says, because great powers like the United States need new options to control rougue governments and insurrectionaries without resorting to total war. On the first night of operation Desert Storm for exarnple, the U.S. Navy launched cruise missiles that showered electrical generating plants around Baghdad with millions of tiny carbon filaments. These filaments disabled Iraq’s air-defense system without damaging the plants themselves. “We wanted to defeat Iraq, not destroy it,” says Air Force Col. John Warden, commandant of the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, in Montgomery, Ala. (Later airstrikes with conventional bombs, however, reduced the turbine halls to rubble.)
Warden and other new-wave military thinkers say that the list of exotic technologies that could be harnessed for nonlethal weapons is already large and growing. It includes lasers, microwaves, sound waves, strobe lights, electromagnetic pulses, microbes, chemicals, computer viruses — even giant nets. Potentially these seem to offer U.S.forces new options across the whole range of missions, from crowd control to a strategic shutdown of an entire nation. Beanbag bullets, chemical sprays and noise generators would be handy against hostile crowds. Other technologies, like “super-caustic” chemicals that eat through metal or rubber or plastic, would disable not only tanks and trucks but virtually any machine. The most devastating would be electromagnetic pulses, high-powered microwaves and computer viruses that, by disabling all electrical and electronic systems, could cripple a whole society.
Some are simply weird. Consider two nonlethal weapons developed at Sandia National Laboratories, a top-secret government research facility in Albuquerque, N.M . These NLWs, which could have helped a lot in Haiti or Somalia, were originally designed to protect U.S. nuclear warheads in army and air force storage bunkers. Sandia experts were asked to consider the possibility that terrorists might one day invade such a bunker and hold the warheads themselves hostage. “One false move,” the terrorists could say, “and we contaminate the continent.”
This is a particularly tricky problem, since no one wants use guns or explosives around a nuclear warhead. The Sandia solution, now being peddled to U.S. law-enforcement agencies, for use against criminals and rioters was to come up with two very strange types of foam. One foam is supersticky: intruders would be drenched in a substance that, exposed to the air turns into taffylike glue. The other creates an avalanche of very dense soap bubbles that would leave the terrorists unable to hear, see or move, although they would still be able to breathe. Either way, the bad guys would be immobilized until the foams were dissolved and no one would fire a shot.
‘Slick’ems’: Other researchers developed chemical compounds that do much the samething to vehicles. Known as slick’ems and stick’ems, these chemicals make pavements either too sticky or too slippery for tanks and trucks to move. Then there are nets,metallic shrouds for tanks and trucks, filament nets for people. Fired in canisters about the size of large soda bottle, these nets pop open overhead, then fall to trap the target.
Or take beam weapons. A staple of science fiction fra the time of H. G. Wells, “ray guns” are military reality mostly as laser-aiming devices to allow precision targeting of conventional explosives, but also as defensive weapons that can dazzle the pilot of an attacking plane or blind the optics in an enemy tank’s gun sight. Los Alamos Laboratory has tested the prototype of a laser rifle, and there are unconfirmed reports of large-scale Army experiments with similar guns. So types of lasers can burn holes in metal or human flesh, which means they can destroy and kill. And unlike conventional firearms laser can be tuned to lower energy pulses that could produce a knockout blow. As a result, though no one says the day is near — U.S. soldiers may someday hear order to set their laser rifles on “stun.”
Behind the new interest in nonle weapons stands an unlikely cast of characters — a husband-and-wife team of science-fiction writers, a former deputy director of the CIA and an intellectually eclectic millionaire, among others. The science-fiction writers, Janet and Christopher Morris of Hyannisport, Mass., spent years noodling about the concepts of nonlethal warfare. By the late ’80s their ideas had a certain following among a group that included Ray Cline, the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence in the 1960s, and John Alexander, a former Green Beret colonel who is now at Los Alamos. Alexander met the Morrises and their work attracted Cline. It also attracted support from Malcom Wiener, a New York-based millionaire and an influential member of New York’s Council on Foreign Relations. After a series of seminars and skull sessions that widened the net of participants, Cline got appointment with George Bush to promote nonlethals.
Their appointment, sheduled for the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, never happened and the NLW initiative marked time for the next two years. But its visionary possibilities gradually attracted men like Dick Cheney, Bush’s secretary of defense, and by the time Bill Clinton took office in January 1993, a rough consensus had formed. It got a boost, bureaucratically speaking, from e FBI’s debacle in Waco. Newsweek has learned that the FBI considered and rejected exotic nonlethal technologies for use against David Koresh and his followers. Sources tell Newsweek that the FBI consulted Moscow experts on the possible use of a Soviet technique for beaming subliminal messages to Koresh. The technique uses inaudible transmissions that could have convinced Koresh he was hearing the voice of God inside his head. The air force offered a top secret nonlethal system that, according to one source, “would have given [the FBI] the ability to make a surprise attack with a large number of agents.”
None of this was used, of course, and in he aftermath of the tradgedy, Attorney General Janet Reno asked the Pentagon and the CIA to join her department in a search for nonleathal technologies that could be used by both the military and civilian law enforcement. “The problem is not a shortage of promising technologies,” says David Boyd, director of science and technology at the National Institute of Justice. “My sense is that a lot of what’s in the labs could be fielded pretty quickly and cheaply.”
The result now is what Pentagon officials describe as a low-key, pragmatic program to develop useful NLW’s within the next three to five years. Technical glitches may eliminate many of the gizmos that already on the drawing boards of various government
labs, But even assuming technologies can be made to work, there are large practical problems that inhibit use of nonlethal weapons in the real world. One is international law: most chemical and biological weapons are banned by treaty. Another is adapting military training doctrines to less-than-lethal warfare. A third is the risk that the attempt to use NLWs could backfire. How will Congress and the public react, some skeptics ask, if U.S. troops in a future Haiti or Somalia get shot while trying to catch rioters with nets? Even more ominous, others warn, is possibility that terrorists might turn nonlethal weapons against the United States. A drawback of some NLWs, like computer viruses, is that complex societies are more vulnerable to disruption.
Beanbags: Still, U.S. troops will someday use NLWs to control a hostile mob like one the Pakistanis faced in Mogadishu last year — and the scenario is fascinating. They might use sound barriers, strobe lights and beanbag rounds to rout the mob. They might use surveillance drones equipped with magnetometers to sense the presence of snipers rifles, and stickyfoam or nets to catch the men with guns. They could use slick’ems and stick’ems against the Somali “technicals,” a knockout gas against the warlords’ headquarters. If the rebels use a radio transmitte broadcast anti-U.N. propaganda, the U.S. Air Force already has a flying transmitter that can replace the warlords message with one that supports the peacekeepers. If the Somalis station snipers in buildings, the Russians have a radar system that can look through walls and spot them. And the laser rifle with its dual power setting — one for “stun” and the other for kill — is somewhere down the road. Take a message to Mohammed Aidid, Scotty: tell him the Entereprise is here.
New Age Arsenal [sidebar] The Pentagon is developing some strange technologies and even stranger gizmos. AIRCRAFT. High-power lasers disorient enemy pilots and disable cockpit displays. Aerosol-delivered liquids suddenly turn metal brittle. TROOPS. Sound generator produces noise to the pain level; on-board widget protects crew. Red and blue strobe lights nauseate unfriendly crowds. Hideously awful smells immobilize troops; aerosol mists draw disengagement lines. The world’s largest flash bulb temporarily blinds onlookers. TANKS. High-powered microwaves fuse radios and destroy electronic guidance systems of artillery shells. Nonnuclear electromagnetic pulse zaps radios, computers and lighting circuits. TRUCKS. Microbes eat engine hoses, belts, electrical insulation. “Pyrophoric” particles burn out engines when drawn into air intakes; “slick’em” and “stick’em” sprays make roads impassable. Compounds turn diesel fuel and gasoline into jelly.
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