11. Non-lethal weapons: a case study of new technology developments



While the concept of non-lethal weapons is not new, since the Persian Gulf War and with growing technological capabilities there has been a renewed effort to develop them for use in situations where less than lethal force is required or desirable.

In discussing such technologies, a 1991 US draft policy planning paper stated that the Gulf War had shown that `this emerging class of weapons and systems is a more civilised means to achieve political ends when lethal or less discriminate force would traditionally be the only option'. The Pentagon decided to intensify efforts in the non-lethal area but to increase the level of secrecy as well, signalling the potential for an effort comparable in size and scope with the Strategic Defense Initiative.

US Defense Secretary Les Aspin announced in October 1993 that the Pentagon would initiate a series of studies on non-lethal technologies. One of the areas to be reviewed by a high-level working group set up by US Defense Secretary William Perry to assess possible changes in forces organization and deployment required for the next two decades is the new requirements for low-intensity conflict and possible advantages of less-than-lethal technologies.

In January 1994 a new NATO study group began holding meetings that will focus on non-lethal technologies that could be employed to help enforce no-fly zones. For example, aircraft and helicopters violating UN-mandated no-fly zones in the former Yugoslavia are routinely detected, intercepted and identified. While jamming and other electronics countermeasures have long been in existence, new non-lethal technologies are being explored which would make it possible to force an aircraft to withdraw and prevent its return without sustaining permanent injury.

Newer technologies include high-power microwave weapons capable of disabling unprotected electronic systems, advanced portable lasers for use against sensors and personnel as well as chemical and biological agents capable of degrading the performance of equipment and/or personnel. Directed-energy munitions, `Demons', are being developed to blind sensors on vehicles or aircraft so that they may then be more readily destroyed by more lethal weapons.

The main operational environment for deployment of non-lethal weapons would most likely be in operations associated with peacekeeping and peace-enforcement, possibly in concert with economic sanctions. Another potential area for deployment is in dealing with evolving trans-national threats: various forms of terrorist activity as well as threats posed by drug cartels, for example, create contingencies in which the additional force options provided by non-lethal weapons could be useful, especially when the safety of hostages or civilians is involved.

Non-lethal weapons that generate an EMP are seen to be of significant interest for Special Forces operations for which `long-range, lightweight, low/no-signature, precision strike capabilities are essential'.

No arms control measures deal specifically with non-lethal weapons. However, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention contain provisions which may have a bearing on aspects of their development or use in certain circumstances. Superacids, superglues and many other chemical means now being considered under the non-lethal warfare heading could be incompatible with the goals of the CWC.

Among the important concerns is that of proliferation and potential destabilizing effects, perhaps making war more likely in some situations.

SIPRI Yearbook 1994 cover

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