Pulling Punches

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail:

Will 2004 bring a kinder, gentler American soldier? A California company has delivered a prototype nonlethal acoustic weapon for use in ship security. A powerful microwave weapon that painfully heats up human skin but doesn’t kill is ready for deployment to protect soldiers and installations against intruders and mobs. Lasers and other intense light weapons that temporarily blind are being developed to subdue suspects. New incapacitating chemical weapons that could put the occupants of an entire apartment building to sleep are being created in laboratories.

The days of lethal force are certainly not over. But, boosted by the war on terrorism and the demands of the guerrilla war in Iraq, the development of new and exotic nonlethal weapons has gotten a huge lift.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld recently approved a new research and development program that features such weapons prominently. Rumsfeld’s director of “force transformation,” retired Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, has said publicly he believes the department needs to vastly increase spending on nonlethal weapons. And the director of readiness for special operations forces told an industry gathering before Christmas that nonlethal weapons were needed for stopping vehicles that might contain suicide bombers, for clearing facilities without entering them and for incapacitating dangerous persons.


Yet with all of the high-level support and the new mission demands, nonlethal weapons have two fatal flaws that will ultimately stand in the way of their being widely fielded. First, the Bush administration has adopted a markedly lethal approach to the war on terror. Second, even where a nonlethal weapon might be useful in Iraq or elsewhere, its use could backfire in the broader battle to win over hearts and minds.

The modern era of nonlethal weapons began after the Gulf War in 1991, when military futurists started advocating the development of weapons aimed at disabling enemy capabilities without harming civilians or damaging property. When the Clinton administration came to office, the weapons were seen as natural tools for the then-growing peacekeeping missions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Noncontroversial types of nonlethal weapons were deployed, including pepper spray, rubber bullets, beanbag rounds and new and better riot gear.

But in the case of exotic “directed energy” technologies (such as laser, sound-wave and microwave weapons), the technologies were not as capable as advocates had promised, and concerns about human rights and legality slowed development. Meanwhile, many in the conventional military questioned the efficacy of such “wonder weapons.”

When President Bush took office, advocates of nonlethal weapons believed they would finally be given the support they needed. The administration committed itself from the beginning to reinventing the military for the 21st century. But then the events of Sept. 11 and the immediate needs of a military fighting a war pushed the actual deployment of futuristic new weaponry further into the future. The Iraq war came and went without the debut of a widely discussed “E-bomb” that would fry Saddam Hussein’s electronic capabilities. In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, lethal weapons, together with skillful employment of special forces and intelligence, proved to be the centerpiece of the American fighting capability.

Still, as is common with many parts of the vast Pentagon bureaucracy, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate created by Congress in 1996 to focus primarily on peacekeeping continued to provide seed money to a variety of projects. With a significant budget increase after Sept. 11 and almost a decade of tinkering in research laboratories, the directorate now says nonlethal weapons are “at a crossroads.” The program, it says, is moving forward “beyond the rubber bullet modality” into exotic new capabilities.

The most promising new capability, according to military sources, is the “active denial system,” a euphemism for a microwave weapon that could stop would-be attackers from advancing. A Humvee-mounted prototype utilizes a powerful millimeter-wave beam that penetrates skin to a depth of about 1/64th of an inch, heating water molecules and producing what a Marine Corps legal opinion calls “intolerable pain.” Proponents say the beam would stop or turn back individuals at a distance exceeding that of small arms range, and could be used to protect installations from infiltration as well as to flush out insurgents during offensive operations.

Last year, the Marine Corps produced an “acceptability plan” for deploying active denial weapons, arguing that the weapons were legal and asserting that their use would produce no “undesirable human effects ... in the short or long term.” The military is now funding research to determine whether exposure causes long-term cellular damage or cancer.

Every potential American weapon is reviewed to determine its biological effects and its compliance with international law. Perhaps in this regard the most controversial nonlethal weapons are designer chemical warfare agents that can tranquilize or incapacitate individuals and crowds, or smell so foul that they instantly repel people. A sense of what such weapons could do was seen in October 2002 when Russian special forces used an incapacitating gas to try to free more than 700 hostages being held by Chechen rebels in a Moscow theater. The 41 terrorists were all killed. But the dose used was more dangerous than expected and 129 civilians also died.

Immediate questions were raised both about the propriety of using such agents around civilians and about the legality of such chemicals. Chemical weapons are prohibited by international convention, though they can be used for domestic law enforcement purposes. This irony of this drew Rumsfeld’s scorn during a congressional hearing. “We are doing our best to live within the straitjacket that has been imposed on us,” he said. He decried the possible scenario in Iraq where “our forces are allowed to shoot somebody and kill them, but they’re not allowed to use a nonlethal riot-control agent under the law.” Such agents aren’t yet ready for use in Iraq, although in certain military missions, such as handling prisoners of war and protecting U.S. forces against attack, there is widespread recognition that great potential exists for nonlethal weapons.

This has been particularly the case since the October 2000 attack on the U.S. guided missile destroyer Cole in Yemen. For protection of ships against terrorists, the Navy is testing an acoustic weapon that was delivered in 2003. San Diego-based American Technology Corp. developed the prototype for a powerful focused sound beam the size of a satellite dish that allows sailors to signal approaching boats and then deliver a debilitating ultrasonic beam if intruders get too close.

Other acoustic and microwave weapons are also under development. Defense industry researchers have designed a variety of lasers and high-intensity light sources that temporarily blind, and the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate recently increased the budget for the so-called Clear-A-Space mission that aims to develop a brilliant flash, dazzling light or noise source that will, without harming them, compel people to move out of a space (such as an aircraft passenger compartment).

For all of these weapons, Pentagon budget documents refer to a “rheostatic” capability. This means a graduation of effects from merely annoying to incapacitating to lethal. But this desire for a variety of effects has also made it difficult to develop the proper degree of offensive capability with predictable and repeatable bioeffects in humans, including vulnerable civilian bystanders.

To the military’s credit, a number of nonlethal weapons ideas, such as blinding lasers or electromagnetic pulse weapons, have been abandoned because they were deemed too dangerous or could not be reliably employed and controlled. Rumsfeld’s general counsel has raised concerns about the legality of a new laser weapon called a “pulsed energy projectile” that is favored by the Joint Directorate.

The legality of a weapon, and how it is perceived, is vitally important to military commanders and policymakers. One argument made by nonlethal-weapons proponents is that such weapons are politically more acceptable than lethal force. Yet if at the same time the public perceives that the United States is using weapons that cause unnecessary suffering or are humiliating in their effects, the purpose is defeated.

The Pentagon recognizes this tricky balancing act. The latest program request for nonlethal weapons, obtained by The Times, speaks of a need to “exploit observed anxiety of adversaries when faced with advanced, unconventional weapons whose effects are more challenging” while at the same time “making disjunctive participants [in a crowd] more receptive to the message and will of [American] forces.” The next generation of weapons, the classified program document says, will combine “silent” and “invisible” engagement “to minimize the ‘CNN Effect’ ” and support U.S. psychological and foreign policy objectives.

Before Sept. 11, nonlethal-weapons proponents thought the Bush administration would provide them carte blanche to pursue their dream. But the terrorists who attacked the U.S. complicated things. Now their biggest challenge is convincing the military leadership that what they need is a new gizmo. Few have the stomach to make the sensitive battleground of the war on terrorism a laboratory to test unproven weapons. The danger ahead is that Rumsfeld and company will approve the deployment of controversial capabilities in secret, ignoring the dangerous implications of opening a Pandora’s box to achieve what could be marginal military advantage.