Magazine article National Defense


Magazine article National Defense


Article excerpt

Nonlethal weapons: help or hinder?


A series of successful tests have boosted chances that the Defense Department will deploy a new "nonlethal" crowdcontrol weapon to Iraq next year.

But it appears doubtful that nonlethal weapons - including electromagnetic rathation guns, acoustic devices, lasers and tear gases - will become pervasive in combat zones in the foreseeable future, experts contend. Although the Pentagon has tested nonlethal weapons and has offered evidence that they are relatively safe, the long-term consequences of their employment has yet to be stuthed. While some military commanders praise nonlethal weapons as valuable tools that can prevent civilian deaths, others are told by their lawyers that the potential risks and liabilities from using these weapons outweigh their benefits.

The Defense Department defines nonlethal weapons as those that are "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."

Unlike conventional lethal weapons that destroy their targets principally through blast, penetration and fragmentation, nonledials are intended to cause "relatively reversible effects," according to Pentagon documents.

Supporters of nonlethal weapons assert that these technologies offer alternatives to lethal force that are much needed in wars such as Iraq, where combatants are hard to discriminate from innocent civilians. Sometimes, a solther needs something in between "shout" and "shoot," said Marine Corps Col. Kirk Hymes, director of the Defense Department's joint nonlethal weapons directorate.

The moniker "nonlethal" may be a misnomer, however, because these weapons can be misapplied and cause death, Hymes said. Taser electroshock stun guns are one example of a weapon that was designed to be nonlethal but can be deadly.

"The term nonlethal does not mean zero mortality or non-permanent damage; these are goals and not guarantees of these weapons," the Pentagon's policy states.

The Defense Department has deployed various forms of nonlethal weapons and munitions for many years, and continues to fund research into more futuristic technologies - including ray guns that can fry the electronics of a suspect vehicle and foul-smelling chemicals that would help thwart criminal acts.

These weapons have been a tough sell, however, because they are poorly understood and have sparked conspiracy theories, said William R. Graham, former science advisor to President Ronald Reagan who served as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Graham credited the Defense Department for pushing the technology forward and for instituting the use of nonlethal weapons as alternatives to deadly force. But he cautioned that further research and more widespread education about nonlethal weapons is necessary if the Pentagon is to avert an Agent Orange-like debacle.

Nonlethal weapons that emit rathation could have long-term effects both on the targets and the shooters, but that is not yet known, Graham said at a Capitol Hill conference sponsored by the George C. Marshall Institute.

Graham said he once asked a four-star military commander whether he favored the use of nonlethal weapons. The general responded that he did, but that his lawyers told him he should not, according to Graham.

Perceptions and misconceptions abound regarding nonlethial weapons, he noted. …

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