December 9, 2002
Military continues research into use of nonlethal weaponry
By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – During a search for illegal weapons, U.S. troops
on peacekeeping duties in Kosovo encountered a large and
hostile crowd. When the mob began throwing rocks that injured
some soldiers, the troops were forced to employ their weapons
But instead of a deadly fusillade from their rifles, the troops used
nonlethal devices that dispersed the crowd without serious
injuries and allowed the mission to proceed.
That episode, Marine Col. David Karcher said, illustrates why
there is a growing need for nonlethal weapons in the military's
"They provide a commander more choices, something between a
bullhorn and a bullet," said Karcher, director of a small
multiservice organization that develops nonlethal technology
for military use.
With a growing number of humanitarian and peacekeeping
missions and the greater prospects for operations in urban
areas, where fighters mingle with noncombatants, "the need is
becoming clearer and clearer," said Karcher, head of the Joint
Non-lethal Weapons Directorate at Quantico, Va., Marine Corps
The equipment the organization tests ranges from low-tech
devices such as shotguns firing beanbags to exotic
directed-energy gadgets that cause a burning sensation.
Whi le acknowledging that such tools may be preferable to
conventional military weapons in many cases, some human
rights activists worry that the devices may be more harmful
than the "nonlethal" label suggests or may be used by the
military in domestic situations.
"Nonlethal is a misnomer," said Kerry Boyd of the Arms Control
Association, who noted that the military prefers the term
Even so, "in my view, there are some positives. There are some
situations in which it would be nice for the military or the police
to have less-than-lethal weapons," Boyd said.
"But I have concerns, particularly when you get to the issues of
calmatives," she said, referring to the type of chemical the
Russians used to end a hostage situation in a Moscow theater.
More than 100 hostages died of the effects of the supposedly
Karcher said his organization is not conducting any research on
such agents. But Boyd said there were experiments in the past
and noted that the National Research Council mentioned
calmatives in a Nov. 4 report that urged accelerated efforts on
Dan Koslofsky, an aide at the Center for Arms Control and
Non-Proliferation, viewed nonlethal weapons "more with
optimism than concern. Their focus is for peacekeeping and
humanitarian missions," which the arms-control community
support, he said.
"The real concern among the civil libertarian community is that
they would be used in domestic situations," Koslofsky added.
Although the nonlethal directorate's focus has been on
"operations other than war," such as peacekeeping and
humanitarian missions, its fact sheet notes the weapons "are
useful across the range of military operations."
A U.S. law says the nonlethal weapons are "explicitly designed
and primarily employed to incapacitate personnel or material,
while minimizing fatalities or permanent injury to intended
targets and collateral damage to property and the environment."
The fact sheet, however, says the weapons "are not required to
have zero probability of producing fatalities or permanent
injuries but are designed and employed in a manner that
significantly reduces those probabilities" compared to usual
Every device the office explores is evaluated first for its
compliance with U.S. law and international treaties, such as the
chemical weapons ban or the Geneva conventions on war.
They then are tested rigorously to determine their potential
harmful effects, first on animals and later on humans.
"Some nonlethal weapons can have unintended effects. We try to
find that and minimize it," said Air Force Lt. Col Mark Wrobl, the
chief health effects officer.
The military currently provides its units with a variety of
nonlethal devices. Most of it is basic law-enforcement
equipment such as face masks, plastic shields and shin guards to
protect against projectiles, riot batons, battery-powered
bullhorns and high-intensity lights, plastic handcuffs, various
dispensers for pepper gas – an improved form of tear gas – and
several weapons that fire small beanbags or rubber pellets.
It also has more elaborate tools, including a portable device that
deploys a strong net-like barrier that stops a vehicle and wraps
around the doors so the occupants cannot get away.
But all of the current devices are effective at relatively short
ranges. Much of the research now is focused on equipment that
can work at greater distances, Karcher and his deputies said.
One such project is the Active Denial System, a vehicle-mounted
directed energy transmitter that creates painful heat on the skin
but has no permanent effect.
Other long-range projects involve lasers that could stop a
vehicle or a vessel or create a dazzling light without damaging a
Karcher said his office also is monitoring tests by the Navy and
the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency involving
free-electron lasers. Although the Navy sees the device as a
potential weapon against missiles and small vessels, Karcher
said it might be possible to lower the energy levels to make the
free-electron laser a nonlethal tool.