Nonlethal Weapons: Will Nonlethal Weapons Offer Kinder, Gentler Warfare or Expand the Options for Armed Forces to Inflict Pain and Suffering?

By Lewer, Nick | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Nonlethal Weapons: Will Nonlethal Weapons Offer Kinder, Gentler Warfare or Expand the Options for Armed Forces to Inflict Pain and Suffering?


Lewer, Nick, Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy


During the last few years, far-reaching changes in both local and global security circumstances have sparked growing interest in nonlethal weapons. As it becomes increasingly less likely that nations will have to fight major interstate wars, the academic and research communities, military and police forces, and politicians are turning their attention to operations other than war. (1)

Particular attention is being focused on urban-style warfare in situations where combatants and noncombatants are mixed and the distinction between who is and who is not a combatant is blurred. Also of concern are arenas such as humanitarian crises where large military operations are not particularly useful.

The concept of nonlethal weapons is not new; weapons such as incapacitant gases and plastic and rubber bullets have been used for many years. (2) But now, rapid advances in technology are multiplying the types and numbers of nonlethal weapons. Such technologies combined with other advances in the areas of precision targeting, unmanned weapons-delivery systems, sophisticated command-and-control systems, intelligence gathering and analysis, miniaturization of power sources and components, and portable power-supply units can offer credible alternatives to lethal force in certain situations.

Nonlethal weapons can be used by themselves as stand-alone systems or in combination with traditional lethal weapons. In either case, nonlethal weapons may help reduce the risk of excessive military force, promote international political support for peace-keeping operations, and minimize damage to roads and buildings, and the environment.

What's in a Word?

Certainly, the term nonlethal has a reassuring sound to it. Compared to lethal weapons, the prospect of a new generation of weapons that could minimize injuries resonates strongly in public opinion, which has grown increasingly reluctant to countenance deaths and serious casualties through military action, especially in the era of instant media coverage. But the term nonlethal, when applied to weapons, has been subject to criticism as both a euphemism and an oxymoron.

Some have suggested other terms that may more accurately reflect the true nature of nonlethal weapons. These include less-than-lethal, weapons that disable, soft-kill weapons that briefly incapacitate an opponent or disrupt information and communication capabilities, and prelethal--implying temporary incapacitation to facilitate a follow-up attack with conventional weapons--and worse-than-lethal, weapons.

The latter term highlights the terrible physical and psychological trauma that may affect people if the use of these weapons results in severe injuries, for example, blinding by lasers.

Proponents of nonlethal weapons acknowledge the ambiguity of the term, since the use of any weapon brings with it the risk of injury and death. But, they argue, the term nonlethal accurately reflects the intention neither to kill nor permanently harm. For this reason, they reject the terms disabling or less-than-lethal because those terms imply deliberate, permanent effects, such as loss of limbs or blindness.

For our purposes, nonlethal weapons are those explicitly designed and primarily employed to incapacitate personnel or materiel while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment. (3)

Wide Spectrum

Nonlethal weapons have applications across the whole spectrum of the use of force, including close arrest situations in which police must subdue a violent suspect, neighborhood domestic disputes, counter-terrorism and antidrug operations, military operations in urban terrain, peacekeeping activities, and conventional war. New nonlethal technologies will give military commanders and civilian police forces more options to resolve situations without resorting to lethal methods, so that the force applied is proportional to the threat.

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Nonlethal Weapons: Will Nonlethal Weapons Offer Kinder, Gentler Warfare or Expand the Options for Armed Forces to Inflict Pain and Suffering?
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