The Soft Kill Fallacy (Aftergood)

The “Soft Kill” Fallacy
By Steven Aftergood
Details about programs to develop so-called “non-lethal” weapons are slowly emerging from the U.S. government’s secret “black budget.” The futuristic aura of many non-lethal weapons is seductive, and their advent has been heralded uncritically by many media reports of kinder, gentler weapons.1 But basic political, legal, and strategic questions about the utility of the non-lethal thrust remain unanswered-sometimes even unasked.
“Non-lethal weapons disable or destroy without causing significant injury or damage,” asserted Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in a March 1991 memorandum. This is an important misconception. Nevertheless, Wolfowitz wrote, “A U.S. lead in non-lethal technologies will increase our options and reinforce our position in the postCold War world.”2
The concept of non-lethal weapons is not new; the term appears in heavily censored CIA documents dating from the 1960s. But research and development in non-lethal technologies has received new impetus as post Cold War Pentagon planning has shifted its focus to regional conflicts, insurgencies, and peacekeeping.
Dozens of non-lethal weapons have been proposed or developed, mostly in laboratory-scale models. They encompass a broad range of technologies, including chemical, biological kinetic, electromagnetic, and acoustic weapons, as well as informational techniques such as computer viruses (see “A Non-lethal Laundry List,” page 43).
Of course, the arsenal of conventional warfare already includes systems like electronic jamming devices and anti-radar missiles that are “non-lethal” in the sense that they disable enemy weapons-but only in the context of armed and deadly conflict. In contrast, the proponents of non-lethal weapons apparently envision a relatively benign battlefield.
Sticky foams and “calmatives” would immobilize or sedate adversaries. Specially cultured bacteria would corrode and degrade components of weapons systems. Optical munitions would cripple sensors and dazzle, if not blind, soldiers. Acoustic beam weapons would knock them out. Netting and shrouds would thwart the movement of aircraft, tank, and armored vehicles. These and many other related technologies have already been demonstrated at a proof-of-concept level. In some cases, the proposed technologies raise questions about compliance with international agreements (see “Non-lethal Weapons May Violate Treaties,” page 44).
In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon has moved to coordinate these diverse research programs, as well as plan the acquisition of non-lethal weapons and their incorporation into military training.3 Current funding, which is secret, is probably no more than several tens of millions of dollars per year, although reportedly it could grow to more than $1 billion over the next several years.
One of the people spending that money is John B. Alexander of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The 32-year army veteran belongs to the “special technologies” group of the lab’s International Technology Division, which assesses the national security implications of emerging technologies. Alexander coordinates the lab’s multidisciplinary effort on non-lethal weapons. For his outstanding leadership in this capacity, Aviation Week & Space Technology honored him as one of its annual aerospace “laureates” this past January.
Alexander also has a pronounced interest in paranormal phenomena. In a notorious 1980 article, “The New Mental Battlefield,” which appeared in Military Review (a U.S. Army journal), Alexander wrote that “there are weapons systems that operate on the power of the mind and whose lethal capacity has already been demonstrated. . . . The psychotronic weapon would be silent, difficult to detect, and would require only a human operator as a power source.”
Discussing “out-of-body experiences,” he asserted that “it has been demonstrated that certain persons appear to have the ability to mentally retrieve data from afar while physically remaining in a secure location. . . . The strategic and tactical applications are unlimited.” (And in fact there is evidence that “remote viewers” have provided consulting services to U.S. intelligence agencies.)
“There is sufficient concern about psychic intrusion to cause work to begin on countermeasures,” Alexander advised in the article.
Last year, Alexander organized a national conference devoted to researching “reports of ritual abuse, near-death experiences, human contacts with extraterrestrial aliens and other so-called ‘anomalous experiences,'” the Albuquerque Journal reported in March 1993. The Australian magazine Nexus reported last year that in 1971, Alexander “was diving in the Bimini Islands looking for the lost continent of Atlantis. He was an official representative for the Silva mind control organization and a lecturer on precataclysmic civilizations . . . [and] he helped perform ESP experiments with dolphins.”
In The Warrior’s Edge: Front-line Strategies for Victory on the Corporate Battlefield-a 1990 book he co-authored with Maj. Richard Groller and Janet Morris-Alexander describes himself as having “evolved from hard-core mercenary to thanatologist.”
“As a Special Forces A-Team commander in Thailand and Vietnam, he led hundreds of mercenaries into battle,” the book explains. “At the same time, he studied meditation in Buddhist monasteries and later engaged in technical exploration and demonstration of advanced human performance.” Along the way, Alexander seems to have immersed himself in nearly every peripheral or imaginary mode of human experience.
Alexander is forthright and unapologetic about his interest in the paranormal, insisting that it has no connection at all with his work at Los Alamos. He also says that a forthcoming book by Jim Marrs will “take the wraps off” the field of parapsychology and help to vindicate his position. Marrs is the author of a Kennedy assassination conspiracy book, Crossfire.
John Alexander is by all accounts a resourceful and imaginative individual. He would make a splendid character in a science fiction novel. But he probably shouldn’t be spending taxpayer money without adult supervision.
The first step in fathoming the non-lethal weapons program is to get past the name. When even proponents concede that non-lethal weapons are not necessarily non-lethal, why are they still called that? Because the term is politically attractive.
“Major political benefit can be accrued by being the first nation to announce a policy advocating projection of force in a manner that does not result in killing people,” Alexander writes.4
Various names were considered and are still sometimes used: soft kill, mission kill, less-than-lethal weapons, noninjurious incapacitation, disabling measures, strategic immobility.
“Having been through a number of names, I can say that nothing has had the impact of ‘non-lethal,'” avers Alexander. The growing prominence of the non-lethal program tends to validate this strategy.
Rebelling against the program’s marketing spin, analysts across the political spectrum have rejected the assertion that non-lethal weapons represent a new development in warfighting- or even a fruitful area for investment.
Defense expert William M. Arkin says that the resurgence of interest in non-lethal weapons was spawned in part by “the use of special weapons [the Kit 2 carbon-fiber warheads on Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles] against electrical installations” in the Persian Gulf War. However, he notes, this “non-lethal” application devastated a civilian population that was otherwise largely spared the direct effects of bombing. Non-lethal weaponry, Arkin concludes, is a “fantasy program.”5
Likewise, Eliot A. Cohen, writing in Foreign Affairs, declares that “the most dangerous legacy of the Persian Gulf War [is] the fantasy of near-bloodless use of force.” Further, Cohen says, “the occupants of a helicopter crashing to earth after its flight controls have fallen prey to a high-power microwave weapon would take little solace from the knowledge that a non-lethal weapon had sealed their doom. Some of these weapons (blinding lasers, for example) may not kill, but
have exceedingly nasty consequences for their victims. And in the end a disabling weapon works only if it leaves an opponent vulnerable to full-scale, deadly force.”6
Many official spokespersons concede the point and argue that non-lethality is being evaluated as an adjunct to-not a replacement for-large-scale conventional warfare. “We’re not looking at this as a new warfighting strategy per se, but rather as another effective tool for the users,” says Frank Kendall, director of the Pentagon’s tactical warfare programs.7
But some, like Alexander of Los Alamos, are far more ambitious. Alexander envisions a fundamental reorganization of the military in which non-lethal weapons would apparently occupy a central position. “Non-lethal defense concepts are comprehensive, far beyond adjuncts to present warfighting capabilities. Non-lethal defense has applicability across the continuum of conflict up to and including strategic paralysis of an adversary.”8
If there is any substantive basis for this contention, it is obscured by the secrecy surrounding the programs.
Because most non-lethal weapons programs are classified, they are shielded from the democratic process. Such secrecy precludes informed public discussion of some of the most basic policy issues as well.
One immediate consequence of the excessive secrecy is a wasteful duplication of effort. Justice Department officials who surveyed some of the “black budget” programs for possible law enforcement applications found the same technologies being developed in as many as six independent programs. “We’ve been startled at the number of times we’ve run into this,” says David Boyd of the National Institute of Justice.9
The waste results from a lack of independent oversight of non-lethal programs, which- like other highly classified “special access” or “black” programs in defense and intelligence- operate beyond the reach of the checks and balances that U.S. citizens take for granted.
Special access programs employ security measures that are draconian compared to ordinary classified programs. Cong. Patricia Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Research and Technology subcommittee, mentioned at a recent hearing that she’d asked the Defense Department for a list of special access programs and their costs. Her request was turned down. Anita Jones, the Pentagon director of defense research and engineering, claimed that providing the list to Schroeder-whose subcommittee must authorize spending for such programs-would be too dangerous to national security.10
This decision was grotesque but not surprising. In the special access world, constitutional democracy does not apply, and government accountability is a subversive idea.
The government secrecy system as a whole is among the most poisonous legacies of the Cold War-and a godsend for non-lethal weapons programs. Of course, there has always been a degree of secrecy in the U.S. government, and it’s always been recognized that certain narrow areas must be protected from disclosure for the sake of a larger public interest. But the Cold War secrecy system still in place today goes far beyond those areas of consensus. It is in fact a kind of political cancer that has been allowed to spread unchecked into vast sectors of government, masking huge secret budgets, suppressing incredible volumes of historical and policy records, and concealing environmental data and other essential requirements of democratic decision-making and government accountability.
Beyond simply concealing enormous quantities of information from the public, the Cold War secrecy system also mandates active deception. A security manual for special access programs authorizes contractors to employ “cover stories” to disguise their activities. The only condition is that “cover stories must be believable.”11
Even the government is starting to recognize that official cover and deception programs are getting out of hand and need to be curtailed. A Joint Security Commission established by the secretary of defense and the director of central intelligence reported in March that “the use of cover to conceal the existence of a government facility or the fact of government research and development interest in a particular technology is broader than necessary and significantly increases costs.”
“For example, one military service routinely uses cover mechanisms for its [special access] programs without regard to individual threat or need. Another military organization uses cover to hide the existence of certain activities or facilities. Critics maintain that in many cases, cover is being used to hide what is already known and widely reported in the news media,” the commission stated.12
The hazards of unaccountable government, from secret wars to secret radiation experiments, are well known. And yet the system continues. The Clinton administration has made progress toward reforming it, but measurable results still have not materialized.
The nominal justification for secrecy in non-lethal weapons is that developing them on a totally unclassified basis would enable potential adversaries to duplicate the effort or develop countermeasures. This is a valid concern that is exploited beyond all justification to the point of concealing the budgets and even the very existence of many programs. If a non-lethal technology is so fragile that simply acknowledging its existence would negate its effectiveness, then it probably isn’t worth much.
1. “Soon, ‘Phasers on Stun,'” Newsweek (Feb. 7, 1994), pp. 2426; “Not So Deadly Weapons,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 20, 1994, p. A4.
2. Paul Wolfowitz, “Do We Need a Nonlethal Defense Initiative?” memorandum to the Secretary of Defense (March 10, 1991) USD(P).
3. Barbara Opall, “DoD to Boost Nonlethal Options,” Defense News (March 28, 1994), p. 46.
4. John B. Alexander, Los Alamos National Laboratory Report No. LA-UR-92-3206.
5. William M. Arkin, “Arms Control After the Gulf War,” (Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, 1993), p. 26.
6. Eliot A. Cohen, “The Mystique of U.S. Air Power,” Foreign Affairs ( Jan./Feb. 1994), p. 121.
7. Opall, Defense News.
8. John B. Alexander, Los Alamos National Laboratory Report No. LA-UR-92-3773.
9. Stacey Evers, “Police, Prisons Want Cheap Non-lethal Technologies,” Aerospace Daily, Nov. 19, 1993, p. 299.
10. “Perry Studying Black Budget Oversight Procedures,” Defense Daily, April 19, 1994, p. 106.
11. John Horgan, “Lying By the Book,” Scientific American (Oct. 1992), p. 20.
12. “Redefining Security,” a Report to the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence by the Joint Security Commission (Feb. 28, 1994), pp. 1920.
A non-lethal laundry list
Dozens of technologies are being studied or developed under the elastic rubric of “non-lethal weapons.”
Some of the non-lethal weapons concepts most frequently cited in the unclassified literature were proposed or first publicly described by Janet Morris of the U.S. Global Strategy Council, whose advocacy helped motivate the current Pentagon initiative on non-lethal weapons. Publicly described weapons include:
Infrasound: Very low-frequency sound generators could be tuned to incapacitate humans, causing disorientation, nausea, vomiting, or bowel spasms.
Laser weapons: Low-energy laser rifles could dazzle or temporarily blind enemy soldiers, or disable optical and infrared systems used for target acquisition, tracking, night vision, and range finding. The International Committee of the Red Cross has initiated a humanitarian campaign to prohibit the use of lasers as weapons of war.
Supercaustics: These highly acidic chemical agents can be millions of times more caustic than hydrofluoric acid. They could destroy the optics of heavily armored vehicles, as well as tires and structural metals.
Biological agents: Microbial cultures can be “designed” to chew up almost anything. Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory reviewed naturally occurring organisms that could be cultured to enhance certain characteristics. “As a result, we discovered a bacterium that degrades a specific material used in many weapons systems.”1
Acoustic beam weapons: High frequency acoustic “bullets” used against people would induce blunt-object trauma “like being hit by a baseball.” According to John Alexander of Los Alamos, “Proof of principle has been established; we can make relatively compact acoustic weapons.”2
Combustion inhibitors: Chemical agents can be released into the atmosphere or introduced directly into fuel tanks to contaminate fuel or change its viscosity to degrade or disable all mechanical devices powered by combustion.
Mini-nukes: Jumping onto the non-lethal bandwagon, the redoubtable Edward Teller has proposed developing mini nuclear weapons with explosive yields of 100 tons (“The ‘Soft Kill’ Solution,” March/April 1994 Bulletin). These would be non-lethal, one supposes, as long as the enemy does what he is told.
Among the many other technologies under consideration in the Pentagon’s non-lethal program are sticky foams to immobilize individuals, anti-traction chemicals to slicken roads and runways, high-power microwave generators, mechanical entanglements, holographic projectors, non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse generators, neural inhibitors, and wireless stun devices.3
-S. A.
1. “Antimaterial Technology,” Los Alamos National Lab FY 1991 Progress Report, LA-12319-PR, p. 19.
2. Mark Tapscott and Kay Atwal, “New Weapons That Win Without Killing on DOD’s Horizon,” Defense Electronics (Feb. 1993), p. 41.
3. Elaine M. Grossman, “Pentagon to Set Priorities in Non-lethal Technologies, Weapons,” Inside the Air Force (April 15, 1994), p. 1.
“Non-lethal” weapons may violate treaties
Development of many of the proposed weapons described on these pages has been undertaken by NATO, the United States, and probably other nations as well. Most of the weapons could be considered “pre-lethal” rather than non-lethal. They would actually provide a continuum of effects ranging from mild to lethal, with varying degrees of controllability. Serious questions arise about the legality of these expensive and highly classified development programs. Four international treaties are particularly relevant.
The Biological Weapons Convention. The development of biological agents for “non-lethal” uses such as degradation of aircraft fuel, lubricants, or electrical insulation would appear to violate the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which prohibits the development, production, or possession of biological agents that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes.
Although “protective purposes” is not defined in the treaty, by analogy with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) it can be presumed to mean protection against dangerous biological agents. U.S. law implementing the treaty provides criminal penalties for the development or possession of “any biological agent” for use as a weapon; “biological agent” is defined to include any microorganism capable of causing “deterioration of food, water, equipment, supplies, or material of any kind; or deleterious alteration of the environment.” There is no exemption for use in law enforcement.
The Chemical Weapons Convention and the Geneva Protocol. The development of “non-lethal” chemical weapons, such as sedatives delivered in aerosols absorbed through the skin or supercaustics that corrode roads and tires (and inevitably also clothing, shoes, skin, and flesh), threatens to violate the Chemical Weapons Convention. The convention is expected to come into force next year. It prohibits the development, production, or retention for prohibited purposes of toxic chemicals, defined as “any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals.” The definition would include substances such as caustics and other harmful chemicals not usually classified as poisons.
The convention permits the production of toxic chemicals if they are used for peaceful purposes, as in agriculture; protective purposes (against toxic chemicals); “military purposes not connected with the use of chemical weapons and not dependent on the use of the toxic properties of chemicals as a method of warfare”; and “law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes.” The third of these permissible purposes might be construed to include chemicals such as supercaustics, on the grounds that “life processes” are not the intended target, provided that
use of the chemicals as weapons would entail little contact with living things. For some weapons, this would be difficult to establish.
The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibits “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquid materials or devices.” The “or other” appears to broaden the prohibition beyond asphyxiating or toxic substances. Thus, the use in warfare of harmful chemicals such as supercaustics and sticky foams (which, in addition to forming a kind of “roach motel” for people, could act as asphyxiating agents) may be illegal, and the use of metal embrittlement agents, superlubricants, chemicals that interfere with fuel combustion, and so forth could also be questioned.
Under the CWC, the fourth permissible purpose for developing chemical weapons agents-law enforcement, including domestic riot control-is the major reason currently offered for developing non-lethal weapons. This permissible purpose, however, contains an ambiguity in urgent need of clarification. “Law enforcement” is not defined in the treaty. Does it include anything more than riot control? If so, what? And what law?
In contrast, the convention defines “riot control agents” narrowly and prohibits their use in warfare. Regarding law enforcement, it excludes the use of “Schedule 1” chemicals (one of several categories of chemical weapon agents) but says no more. This implies that for any law enforcement purposes other than domestic riot control, any nonSchedule 1 chemical may be developed, produced, acquired, stockpiled, or transferred as a weapon. Furthermore, although riot control agents must be declared, the treaty says nothing about declaring other agents that might be developed or held for law enforcement.
In the report containing the final text of the CWC, several of the national delegations to the negotiating body pointed out the problems raised by the undefined term “law enforcement’ as a permissible purpose.1 One delegation stated that “this might give rise to far-fetched interpretations of what the negotiators intended.” Indeed, the three delegations that commented on this issue interpreted this permissible purpose in widely different ways: as limited to domestic actions, as applicable outside national boundaries, or as including only domestic and U.N. peacekeeping activities. Unless the CWC Preparatory Commission takes steps to define more closely and limit this wild card, it could subvert much of the intent of the convention and render its elaborate verification mechanism futile.
For domestic riot control, the development of chemical agents is clearly permissible under the CWC, although their use in warfare is prohibited. Riot control agents are defined in the CWC as chemicals “which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.” This might be true of certain sedatives, depending on the dose; it is certainly not true of corrosive chemicals or immobilizing glues. No agent that causes a deleterious effect not automatically reversible can be considered acceptable and humane for use in domestic riot control; it would be unethical to subject innocent bystanders, children, or hostages to severe psychological stress, possible permanent injury, or death.
The development of chemical weapons in the guise of domestic riot control agents must not be allowed as a means of circumventing the CWC. The treaty states that every chemical held for domestic riot control purposes must be declared; the CWC Preparatory Commission needs to specify that these chemicals must fit the convention’s humanitarian definition of a riot control agent.
The Certain Conventional Weapons Convention (also known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention).2 Many of the non-lethal weapons under consideration utilize infrasound or electromagnetic energy (including lasers, microwave or radio-frequency radiation, or visible light pulsed at brain-wave frequency) for their effects. These weapons are said to cause temporary or permanent blinding, interference with mental processes, modification of behavior and emotional response, seizures, severe pain, dizziness, nausea and diarrhea, or disruption of internal organ functions in various other ways. In addition, the use of high-power microwaves to melt down electronic systems would incidentally cook every person in the vicinity.
Typically, the biological effects of these weapons depend on a number of variables that, theoretically, could be tuned to control the severity of the effects. However, the precision of control is questionable. The use of such weapons for law enforcement might constitute severe bodily punishment without due process.
In warfare, the use of these weapons in a non-lethal mode would be analogous to the use of riot control agents in the Vietnam War, a practice now outlawed by the CWC. Regardless of the level of injury inflicted, the use of many non-lethal weapons is likely to violate international humanitarian law on the basis of superfluous suffering and/or indiscriminate effects.3 In addition, under the Certain Conventional Weapons Convention, international discussions are now under way that may lead to the development of specific new protocols covering electromagnetic weapons; a report is expected sometime next year. The current surge of interest in electromagnetic and similar technologies makes the adoption of a protocol explicitly outlawing the use of these dehumanizing weapons an urgent matter.
-Barbara Hatch Rosenberg
1. Conference on Disarmament, Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Chemical Weapons to the Conference on Disarmament, Aug. 26, 1992, Nos. 22, 25, 34 (CD/1170).
2. The full name of this treaty is “Convention on Prohibition or Restriction of the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects.”
3. Louise Doswald-Beck, ed., Blinding Weapons: Reports of the Meetings of Experts Convened by the International Committee of the Red Cross on Battlefield Laser Weapons, 19891991 (Geneva: Internal Committee of the Red Cross, 1993).

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