Non-lethal weapons: Security with a humane face

Strategic Analysis | Sep 5, 1999

Should the situation warrant the employment of the army to render aid to the civil authority, it needs to -be considered whether such a pre-condition for a graduated response from NLWs to lethal weapons should be imposed. NLWs are unlikely to ever substitute lethal weapons completely, they will only serve to supplement lethal weapons.

Over 2,000 years ago, Sun Tzu had counselled in The Art of War that armed force should be applied to gain victory in battle in the shortest possible time, at the least possible cost in lives and effort and by inflicting the fewest possible casualties on the enemy. However, enormous bloodshed in the two World Wars, the immense damage caused by weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and wanton terrorism, have made the 20th century the bloodiest in history. It is only in the last decade, mainly since the end of the Cold War, that a paradigm shift in the concepts of war-fighting is spurring new efforts to evolve more humane, indeed, non-lethal weapons (NLWs).

The prospect of new wonder weapons which minimise death and Injuries, strikes a sympathetic chord in a public that has grown increasingly reluctant to countenance deaths and serious casualties through military action, particularly in peace-keeping and peace-support operations. NLWs are specially designed to incapacitate personnel or material, while minimising fatalities and undesired damage to property and the environment. The intention is to non-lethally overwhelm an enemy’s lethal force, by destroying the aggressive capability of his weapons and temporarily neutralising his soldiers. [hough most analysts consider NLWs as an adjunct to conventional force, there is speculation that non-lethal defence has applicability across the entire continuum of conflict, up to and including strategic paralysis of the adversary.

NLWs are being called by various names. Some of these are: “reduced lethality weapons”, “limited lethality weapons”, “less than lethal weapons’ and “low lethality weapons”. Some analysts have questioned their being called weapons at all. NLWs are being defined as “weapons that do not give rise to long-term after-effects and are not fatal for 99 per cent of combatants and civilians under normal physical conditions”. Another widely accepted definition is: “weapons that disrupt, destroy or otherwise degrade functioning of threat material or personnel without crossing the “death barrier”. Also prevalent are: “instruments used in combat which are designed to achieve the same tactical and strategic ends as lethal weapons but which are not intended to kill personnel or inflict catastrophic damage to equipment” and “discriminate weapons that are explicitly designed and employed so as to incapacitate personnel or material, while minimising fatalities and undesired damage to property and the environment”.

From the well known stun grenades, tear-gas, rubber bullets and water cannons at the lower end of the spectrum, NLWs range through various “slickums” and “stickums” to impede vehicular and foot traffic; movement-inhibiting foams and nets to ensnare combatants and vehicles; highly obnoxious sounds and smells that result in flight from the scene or temporary digestive distress; non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to “fry” electronic circuits of communications equipment, computers and power grids; to sophisticated information warfare and electronic warfare techniques for the surveillance, jamming and manipulation of communications, radio and television broadcasts at the upper end. Other NLW technologies include low energy lasers designed to disable an adversary with temporary blindness; and control through the use of subliminal audio and visual stimuli for psychotronic messages and biological agents for degrading materials and components. The recent ban on the use of lethal anti-personnel landmines (APMs) has led to the development of APMs that dispense non-penetrating pellets instead of shrapnel.

Over 1,000 technologies with the potential to be developed into NLWs have been identified so tar and there are endless further possibilities, limited only by the imagination of the numerous scientists working in great secrecy in this new and challenging field. However, even as non-lethal technologies are mushrooming rapidly, adequate debate and discussion regarding the ethical and legal ramifications of the use of NLWs is not taking place simultaneously. In 1996, human rights organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) led a widespread international campaign against the use of laser-based dazzle devices. The use of biological agents may violate international treaties such as the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BWC). The use of chemical-based incapacitating agents is permitted for domestic law enforcement by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) but not for military purposes.

While the operational utility of NLWs in conventional high-intensity warfare is still to be satisfactorily established, there is no doubt chat NLWs have immense potential and provide a range of options in peacekeeping, peace-enforcement and peace-support operations. The applicability of NLWs in some recent and ongoing conflicts highlights their potential. In Bosnia, the early use of NLWs could have rendered power grids, air traffic control facilities, bridges and roads and tanks and heavy artillery inoperable offering obvious advantages to the peaceKeepers. his lesson was leant by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and thin carbon strips were dropped over power plants and stations in Yugoslavia to disrupt power supplies, But whether it was ethical to do so, is an altogether different question. In Somalia, street and point control through the employment of sticky foams and obnoxious smells would have been preferable to the large number of civilian casualties caused by deadly fire from Ud helicopter gunships. In Rwanda, communications interdiction, fo neutralise dangerous radio broadcasts urging revenge on opposing tribes, would have saved thousands of lives.

The concept of NLWs is also found attractive by politicians and civilian law enforcement agencies seeking alternative and more humane methods to manage internal security problems. such as crowd control and riots, terrorist attacks, communal stand-offs, the arrest of violent criminals and recalcitrant politicians and the rescue of hostages. In fact, the use of NLWs may soon become mandatory in all internal security situations involving the employment of police forces, including state armed police. Only if the situation does not come under control with NLWs, more lethal alternatives may be permitted and that too with the prior permission of the district magistrate (DM) or the deputy commissioner (DC). However, should the situation warrant the employment of the army to render aid to the civil authority, it needs to -be considered whether such a pre-condition for a graduated response from NLWs to lethal weapons should be imposed. The deterrence value and salutary effect of calling in the army will definitely be eroded if the army is forced to first use rubber bullets or sticky foams when the situation has already deteriorated considerably and is beyond the capacity of police forces to handle.

Some of the salient advantages of NLWs are as under:

– They reinforce deterrence and credibility by providing commanders with options for a graduated response over a wider range of military activities.

– They reduce risk of rapid escalation, especially in OOTW, by offering a progressive incremental increase in lethality.

– NLWs are publicly and politically attractive alternatives.

– NLWs can buy time at a low casualty rate for a diplomatic solution to be sought.

– NLWs have utility across the entire spectrum of conflict and at all levels of command.

– NLWs can reduce the cost of rebuilding infrastructure and economy after a conflict is over.

Some of the disadvantages of NLWs are as under:

– Use of force becomes more acceptable.

– Use of NLWs may lack decisive action and may be perceived as failing to punish the aggressor, as NLWs do not destroy the enemy.

-Use is restricted by treaties, convention and bad publicity (if the effect is miscalculated).

– Difficulty in assessing effects, both in the short and long-term.

– Use of NLWs may heighten the resolve of the enemy to respond with lethal force. NLWs must be backed up with the threat of lethal force.

The advent of NLWs as humane weapons in a world sickened by the horrors of war is a welcome and attractive development. Though still at a nascent stage, the employment of NLWs is bound to find favour in peace-keeping and peace-enforcement operations, as also in internal security situations and the maintenance of law and order. It Is imperative that the development of doctrinal precepts for the use of NLWs and the resolution of various ethical and legal complications also take place simultaneously with the advances in NLW technologies.

Lethal and non-lethal weapons are not mutually exclusive alternatives. Hence, the availability of NLWs in a conventional military conflict will provide a new range of options to a commander in the field to best achieve his tactical objectives with the minimum casualties and collateral damage. NLWs are unlikely to ever substitute lethal weapons completely, they will only serve to supplement lethal weapons. This distinction needs to be clearly understood. Otherwise, there will always be a danger of creating unrealistic expectations of bloodless battles.