Intervention Without Messy Casualties? Pentagon Tries 'Non-Lethal Weapons'


The most striking "aspect of future warfare will be its lethality; there will be more casualties and more varied types of wounds," the U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command warned in 1982 study. "Will soldiers be able to exist on the battlefield of year 2000? Or are we imagining such a technologically hostile environment that soldiers themselves will not be accommodated?"

A decade later, in the wake of the brief-but-violent Persian Gulf war and the collapse of the Soviet military superpower, the U.S. military is posed to take a long, hard look at a kinder, gentler sort of warfare -- one that could allow the Pentagon to mount military interventions more freely, without embarrassingly high Third World casualty levels.

"A major opportunity exists in nonlethal technologies . . . with potential for development into weaponry that can disable or destroy an enemy's capability without causing significant injury, excessive property destruction or widespread environmental damage," the doctrine command asserted in a new concept paper last August.

This new class of arms would "not blow holes in armor or create smoking ruins," that paper continues. "Examples are low-energy lasers to temporarily blind people, infrasound waves to temporarily disorient and incapacitate people, and chemical agents that would change the molecular structure of base metals or alloys on critical aircraft, ships, trucks or armored vehicles."

Far-out overtones of science fiction notwithstanding, non-lethal

warfare is no novel notion. Peering over the technological horizon in a 1981 report, the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute pondered non-lethal dream weapons might be available warriors by century's end, such as a "nonlethal riot gas [that] causes temporary disorientation or confusion and motivation changes" and a "rapid-setting . . . expansion-foam spray [that] can be used for immobilizing vehicles, weapons, or personnel."

What is new, however, is the high-level attention non-lethality is now receiving. Last March, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney established a Non-Lethal Warfare Study Group, chaired by his undersecretary for policy, Paul D. Wolfowitz. A proposal to plunge $148 million into non-lethal arms research over the next five years hangs in the balance.

This spurt of activity has been propelled by continuing controversy over Iraqi casualties in the Persian Gulf war. During the long war in Southeast Asia, the Pentagon avidly chalked up, and even exaggerated, enemy body counts as a measure of military success. Following the war with Iraq, by contrast, the armed forces have studiously voided even addressing the question of enemy casualties. Estimates of Iraqi military deaths range from fewer than 15,000 to well over 100,000.

Civilian deaths have been even harder to pin down. In any event, when hundreds of women and children were killed in a Feb. 13, 1991 attack on a Baghdad bomb shelter, the Pentagon was put on the defensive.

The chief nonofficial lobbyist for non-lethality has been the U.S. Global Strategy Council, a conservative Washington think tank chaired by former CIA deputy director Ray S. Cline.

"When you look at after-action reports for [the 1989 U.S. incursion into] Panama, it was clear that . . . many of our weapons were useless for an enemy that you didn't want to blast back into the Stone Age," council research director Janet E. Morris, who has prepared a series of presentations on non-lethal doctrine since early last year, argued in an interview.

"Desert Storm proved that we can keep our own people alive, but every time you kill people in the Third World you are creating generations of enemies, and it will come back to haunt us."

The United States has employed non-lethal military tools before. In Vietnam, U.S. forces used riot control agents, such as tear gas, against North Vietnamese troops and seeded rain clouds over and dumped emulsifiers onto the Ho Chi Minh trail in hopes of turning that vital enemy supply route into a slippery morass. Neither technique proved to afford much military advantage.

More recently, the Army has spent tens of millions of dollars on a vehicle-mounted laser called Stingray. Designed to "craze" the electro-optics on opposing tanks, Stingray also has the potential to blind enemy troops.

Squirreled away in the Pentagon's black maze of top-secret projects, a whole family of such lasers, including hand-held devices, is now germinating. Large sums have also been pumped into classified research on high-powered microwave generators intended to disrupt a foe's electronic systems. Already in hand are stun grenades, which eschew deadly metal fragments in favor of blinding light and disorienting concussion.

Even the blaring pop music that the Army used to help drive Manuel Noriega out of the Vatican Embassy in Panama City in 1990 could be considered a sort of non-lethal warfare.

Further out on the edge of the technological envelope, the strategy council posits a notional armamentarium of non-lethal arms: "neural inhibitors" to short-circuit opposing troops' synoptic pathways, for example, as well as air-dispensed Thorazine-like tranquilizers to calm and neutralize enemy personnel, "anti-material biologicals" to contaminate an adversary's high-explosives or fuel, entangling devices to "foul propellers or rotor blades" and "jellied superacids" to "silently destroy key weapons systems."

"The term for all of that is probably better 'disabling,' " the Mr. Wolfowitz, the defense undersecretary, argued at a meeting with reporters last month. "The idea of 'non-lethal warfare' is an almost obscene oxymoron."

As an example of what he has in mind, Mr. Wolfowitz cited the injection of something like the recent, dreaded "Michaelangelo" computer virus into an enemy's defense networks. "That's disabling technology that can do a lot more than a single bomb," he said. "The idea that we ought to exploit our technology to the maximum to achieve the military result with the least unnecessary killing is a very interesting idea."

While supportive of research in this area, retired Army Col. Edward F. Bruner, now a defense specialist with the Congressional Research Service, cautions that "there are a lot of requirements that these non-lethal weapons would have to meet" before they could be shifted from the drawing board to the battlefield.

"First is the fact that we have to be able to protect our own troops against them. A lot of the types of weapons we're talking about are non-discriminatory, unlike a rifle bullet which is aimed," Colonel Bruner warned. "And, if they are easy enough to protect your own troops against, then the enemy might just as easily come up with countermeasures. Another problem is that many of these are weather-dependent, as opposed to a bullet or a bomb, which will have an effect no matter what the weather."

A central attraction of non-lethal arms for their proponents is the latitude they might give Washington to intervene military around the world without bringing down on itself the opprobrium of big body counts.

"Destablizing behavior in the Third World countries will obtain beyond the millennium," the strategy council asserts in a non-lethality briefing. "The cost of not countering this behavior is unthinkable."

Or, as the Navy observed in a draft policy paper on non-lethal weapons issued last Many, "In a real sense, this emerging class of weapons and systems is a more civilized means to achieve political ends when lethal or less discriminate force would traditionally be the only option."

But, asserts William M. Arkin, who has extensively studied Persian Gulf war casualty rates as the director of military research for Greenpeace International, because non-lethal technologies would mostly be targeted against sophisticated materials, they would be most applicable to defeating highly centralized and electronics-dependent powers such as Iraq. Permanently smashing Iraq's large army was very much a U.S. war aim last year, in fact. In most instances, non-lethality would have been irrelevant to achieving that strategic goal.

Soldiers also traditionally prefer to exact "hard kills" against opposing troops and hardware, as compared to less-permanent and less-immediately verifiable "soft kills." In this regard, if enacted as doctrine, non-lethality demands a tidal sea change in military thought.

In any event, "contrary to the proposal on non-lethality, it is not gadgetry that will solve our problems" in waging counterinsurgency warfare, Mr. Arkin contended. "We'll not do any better against a militia-based popular defense with new hardware. If we undertake such an intervention in the future, we will have the same results that we had in Vietnam or that the Soviets had in Afghanistan."

David C. Morrison is national security correspondent for National Journal.

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