Bright future for non-lethal weapons

IssueSeptember - November 2003
Feature by Caroline Lauer

The legacy of world domination by Western powers continues with further advances in military technologies. Far from resting on their deadly laurels, Western governments are still at the forefront of progress in the sector - and non-lethal weapons seem to be the next generation receiving research and development (R&D) funds. From sticky foam to malodorants and high-powered microwave weapons, increasingly sophisticated weapons will bring into line those who intend to challenge Western hegemony and market forces.

The end of the Cold War has brought about a new world order, in which the US has assigned itself the role of the world's “policeman”. The increase in media coverage of so-called peacemaking, peacekeeping, counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism has created a situation where the death of civilians has become less accept-able in the eyes of the public. The US has recently focused on the development of non-lethal weapons with a view to subduing their opponents while retaining public approval. This, in turn, helps to legitimise their self-appointed role as the righter of wrongs in the world. In their constant search for legitimacy, the US has come to call non-lethal weapons “weapons of mass protection”.

It is extremely difficult to know how much money is spent for the research and development of non-lethal weapons in the US because it receives funding from the highly secretive “black” budget, estimated to be between US$30bn to US$50bn a year. Officially, the US had invested US$37m in non-lethal research up to 1996.

Non-lethal malodorants

Talking about malodorant weapons tends to trigger smiles, but the effects of such weapons are less laughable. They can create severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Thirty years ago, the US tried to develop an ethnically targeting variety of these chemical weapons that would only affect the Vietnamese. Developing “ethnic weapons” is fundamentally racist. A new US malodorant programme began in1998. The Pentagon provided the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia with US$195,000 in 2002 to carry out research on malodorant technology. There are also internal research programmes within the army--the total investment in these is unknown.

Chemical and biological...

Malodorance is not the only area for research on ethnically targeted weapons. A DNA technology programme concerned with ethnic population targeting is also said to be under way. This is clearly an infringement of international law as chemical and biological weapons are prohibited by the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stock-piling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and Their Destruction.

Although biological agents are used every day in scientific research, it is prohibited to use them for hostile purposes. It does not matter whether they are lethal, the simple fact that they are designed to be used in a hostile way makes them illegal.

The same principle applies to calmative agents, also called sleep agents, which were allegedly used by the Soviets in Afghanistan. Their effects range from sleep to overpowering hallucinations. Rapidly expanding sticky foam is another chemical agent used as a de-mobiliser. Surprisingly, chemical agents are prohibited in warfare because of the hostile nature of war, but can be used against civilians in domestic law enforcement under the name of “riot control agent”.


Acoustic weapons may cause a range of physiological effects, from imbalance, to spatial disorientation, to death. In 1990, loud music forced Noriega out of the Vatican Embassy in Panama. In Northern Ireland, British forces use the Curdler, a device using high-intensity sound, for riot control. Acoustic weapons are “indiscriminate” weapons, and so civilians may also be injured when attacks are made on the military. Indiscriminate weapons are illegal according to international law.

Infrasound weapons are powerful ultra low frequency sonic weapons that can penetrate buildings and vehicles. They are directional and tunable. They can cause disorientation and affect the performance of simple sensory motor tasks. In experiments, animals stopped breathing when hit by infrasound weapons. They can also cause diarrhoea.

Acoustic weapons can cause permanent deafness. In third world countries where illiteracy rates are high, deafness would deprive people of their main means of understanding.

Energy weapons...

Over the past 10 years, the US has been developing tactical laser weapons, which are designed to disrupt optical and electro-optical devices such as binoculars, gunner's sights and infra-red sensors. Tactical laser weapons are anti-personnel as they do not destroy electro-optical devices but they attack the eyes of the operator. They are described as non-lethal weapons because they are supposed to blind the person temporarily. However, the effect of tactical laser weapons depends on the distance between the weapon and its target. If the target is too close they can cause irreversible blindness. While artificial limbs can be provided,there is currently no replacement for eyes.

What is more, while the blinding effect is supposed to be temporary, this does not mean that the subject will stay alive. The laser blast stops opponents running away. Being temporarily paralysed, the subject becomes a more vulnerable target for lethal weapons. In these cases non-lethal weapons do not come as a replacement for lethal weapons, but rather double up and increase the chance of killing.

For these reasons tactical weapons have been criticised as being politically tricky and not surprisingly their funding has disappeared into the “black” budget. The US is expected to have sophisticated tactical laser weapons by 2015, but they are not the only state to make research in this technology; Britain, China, Germany, Israel and France are also alleged to have research programmes.

Another type of energy weapon is the high-powered microwave (HPM). This weapon uses broad beams of microwave radiation to incapacitate electronics in computers, communications networks and power plants. At low settings, they could be used to break up a crowd by inflicting burns. HPM weapons can prove lethal as people are effectively cooked, with temperatures that can reach 130 degrees F.

An electromagnetic pulse weapon is also being developed by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. This may cause loss of bodily function control and disrupt short-term memory.

...or informational

Informational weapons have attracted much attention because of their enormous potential. There is a high propaganda value in cloning a person's voice or broad-casting a synthesised message; for instance, to give fake orders to an opponent.

Computer viruses can also prove effective weapons to crack opponents' computers.

International civilian movements such as the anti-globalisation or peace movements could see their freedom of expression and thought impinged on as the fabric of their network has been largely woven through the web. What is more,there are concerns that the use of informational weapons might lower the threshold of war and accelerate escalation. For instance, if a country brought down the New York Stock Exchange with a computer virus, the US government may consider it as an act of war and retaliate with lethal weapons.

Although the “non-lethal” label makes it good for political spin doctoring in our media-oriented world, the weapons that hide behind the facade can inflict permanent injury and prove lethal. Currently they are largely still being developed in military R&D departments, but they could soon be manufactured and sold to governments to repress social unrest.

There is no doubt that the non-lethal weapons market will become lucrative over the next few years and soon begin to take centre stage at international events such as DSEi.

Topics: Arms trade