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War without blood? Hypocrisy of ‘non-lethal’ arms
By Steve Wright, Director of the Omega Foundation, Manchester, UK, Le Monde diplomatique, December 1999
The horror of images of deaths caused by Western armies in military operations, designed to maintain peace and security, has led to the development of new arms that are intended to paralyse, not destroy. Yet for all this seductive rhetoric, so-called "non-lethal" arms have the potential to increase the level of violence, spawning ever more advanced techniques of repression. And if democratic countries let their arms manufacturers develop these techniques, they will be exported to places less concerned about brutalising their populations.
The use of "human shields" and civilian hostage-taking is becoming increasingly common in modern warfare. All-out bombing is not just politically primitive but does not help resolve complicated internal conflicts - even if we are talking about smart, carbon fibre bombs. A revolution in military strategy is coming in the wake of the conflict over Kosovo (1).
Perhaps the major beneficiary of this thinking is the Pentagon, which has benefited from President Bill Clinton's decision to give it a gold- plated spending increase of $110bn over six years to boost "military readiness". According to William Hartnung, senior research fellow at the US World Policy Institute (New York), the total United States military budget of $260bn plus, only makes sense in terms of politics and economics, rather than any real threat to American security. Such a sum is, he says, "already twice as large as the combined budgets of every conceivable US adversary, including major powers like China and Russia and regional "rogue states" such as Iraq, North Korea and Libya"(2). For Hartnung, the weapon-makers are shaping US foreign and military policy. They are preparing, within the framework of a new doctrine, weapons systems which will break down the delineation between military and police.
With the end of the cold war we have seen a move away from conflicts between states towards questions of national security or external intervention. Since then US military policy makers have been dreaming of "war without blood". The emergence of a second generation of maiming, paralysing and immobilising weapons in the early 1990s grew out of a collaboration between naive US science fiction writers (such as American Quakers Chris and Janet Morris) and high-profile futurologists (Alvin and Heidi Toffler) with former CIA Director Ray Cline along with Colonel John Alexander (3).
Together they developed a doctrine of "non-lethal" warfare centred on the provision of advanced "soft-kill" weapons and options. The US Defence Department defines these as "weapon systems that are explicitly designed and primarily employed so as to incapacitate personnel or materiel, while minimising fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment" (4). However, most advocates of the doctrine recognise the theoretical nature of this notion and prefer to speak of "less lethal" technologies. The collaboration of writers with the military opened up doors into the US national nuclear weapons laboratories at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, desperate for a new role at the end of the cold war. The humane new doctrine of "war without blood" had a double advantage: it relaunched research and was at the same time a useful public relations exercise after a series of disastrous episodes (including the high profile beating of Rodney King, the Waco siege, and the humiliating confrontations US troops endured in Somalia).
As US commander in chief, President Clinton is known to be particularly susceptible to such a doctrine. His aides say he still agonises over bringing death to innocents and remembers the name of Layla Al Attar - a celebrated Iraqi painter who was crushed by the first military air- strikes on Baghdad. Besides, in the information era civilian deaths and "collateral damage" have a big impact on public opinion.
Thus current US doctrine now says it is unrealistic to "assume away" civilians and non-combatants on today's battlefield. The army must be able to execute its missions in spite of and/or operating in the midst of civilian personnel. These missions include blocking an area; controlling crowds; stopping vehicles and seizing individuals.
The potential tools for achieving these objectives include blunt trauma impact munitions, riot agent dispensers, calmatives, pyrotechnic stun, electric stun, anti-traction, acoustics, entanglement/nets; foams; barriers; directed energy, isotropic radiators, super polymers (to create an immobilising fog) and "non-lethal" mines.
This quest for a magic bullet weapon that does no harm created a new arsenal of weapons more useful in developing a media-friendly "quick fix" for the symptoms of social and political problems than resolving their real causes. The US military freely admit that the doctrine is not meant to replace lethal weapons with "non-lethal" alternatives but to augment the use of deadly force in both war and "operations other than war", where the main targets include civilians. A dubious Pandora's box of new weapons has emerged, designed to appear - rather than be - safe. Because of the ubiquitous CNN factor they need to be media friendly. Progress in this area of innovation has been swift. By 1995 the US Joint Non-Lethal Weapons working group had tested various blunt impact devices, chemical irritants, disorientating technologies, entanglements and aqueous foam barriers. By 1996 this group had evaluated entanglements and sticky foam; modular non-lethal claymore mines; chemical riot control agents; slippery barriers and Caltrops/Volcano mines (that explode when someone enters a forbidden zone) and an acoustic "vortex ring" weapon.
Many of these projects have already been evolved including sniper stopper systems such as the SDS system, commissioned by the US Defence Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, which can detect muzzle blast and fire back (5). We also have M16 rifle adaption which allows it to fire 40 mm XM1006 sponge grenades whilst retaining its lethal force option of firing 5.56 mm bullets; a variable velocity projectile system that enables a single munition to be used as a crowd control blunt impact device or become a lethal sabot if a switch is pulled to open gas vents. There is also the USAF's Saber 203 laser dazzler system, prototypes of which were used by US Marines in Somalia in 1995 (6).
Even though most of the new less-than-lethal initiatives are highly classified, they have spawned a string of lucrative commercial contracts which are occasionally reported in the defence press. However, the clearest picture of progress to date has emerged from three recent conferences sponsored by Jane's Defence Weekly, held in London between 1997 and 1999.
For their 1997 programme the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons directorate had proposed six topics to government laboratories. These included personnel sensing fuses; frangible shell casings; non-lethal anti- materiel/materiel, "tunable" weapons; long range delivery means; and unmanned vehicle capability. It received 63 responses. Two review panels looked at technical and user merit, and three were selected for funding: chemical diffusers, spider fibre and non-lethal electromagnetic pulsers for stopping vehicles. The 1998 programme included four topics: "tunable" non-lethal effects, long range projection, gap analysis and non-lethal alternatives to antipersonnel land mines.
At the 1997 conference, Hildi S. Libby, systems manager for the US army's non-lethal material programme, advocated a range of advanced technologies to "insert into existing weapons platforms". Not surprisingly many of her proposals centred on area denial munitions (7). The US will not sign the land mines treaty until 2006, when "suitable" alternatives have been developed. Libby presented options such as:
Both the 1997 and 1998 Jane's conferences discussed a range of invisible weapons such as the Vortex gun (an advanced system for delivering shock waves to the human body); acoustic bio-effect weapons (which according to US expert William Arkin can be "merely annoying" or "can be tuned to produce 170 decibels and rupture organs create cavities in human tissue and cause potentially lethal blastwave trauma".
The 1998 Jane's conference presented the "layered defence concept" where the outer layers of the control onion are less-lethal and the central area is deadly. Video was shown of microwave weapons being used by troops accompanied by medical staff who treated the comatose targets.
CONTRADICTION IN TERMS
Apart from potentially undermining the Hypocratic oath, this work has been carried out in such secrecy that it is difficult to evaluate claims of safety. For example, Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists, has commented that high-powered microwaves are almost uniquely intrusive. "They do not simply attack a person's body", he says. "Rather they reach all the way into a person's mind ... They are meant to be disorientating or upset mental stability." Such devices heat up and interfere with human body temperature, including so-called bio- regulators; radio-frequency weapons that interfere with the brain and body's own electrical circuitry; and laser systems that can either semi-blind or induce so-called tetanising electrical shocks (that paralyse muscles) (9). In January the European parliament called for a ban on such weapons.
Many non-governmental organisations have voiced opposition to non-lethal weapons arguing that they are a contradiction in terms. Critics say that in the heat of the moment few operatives will favour "phasers on stun" (in Startrek parlance) if they also have a more permanent lethal option. This risks blurring the distinction between crowd control and summary street executions.
Apart from undermining international humanitarian law, such weapons can be deployed in very different contexts from those that the designers envisage. For example, the daily rate of executions recorded in the Rwandan conflict was due to a paralysing tactic of cutting the Achilles tendon that allowed the subsequent killing to be done at leisure.
Sticky foam guns that glue targets to the ground, calmative chemicals that knock out a crowd and paralysing systems that fix people in place are devices that might paradoxically make conflict zones even more lethal - deadly weapons could well be deployed against sitting ducks. In Ireland, the laboratory of the first generation of non-lethal weapons, the use of these weapons encouraged and exacerbated the conflict (10).
Amnesty International has already reported cases where such weapons have been used for street punishment, for example in the US, where peaceful environmental protesters had their eyes directly sprayed with pepper gas -- which Amnesty characterised as "tantamount to torture". The organisation has also documented the repeated use in Kenya of a very strong form of tear gas. Two years after it succeeded in getting the British government to ban its exportation, Amnesty reported that the substance used to subdue a peaceful demonstration on 10 June 1999 was supplied by a French company, Nobel Securite (11).
Once the repressive systems are developed, their manufacturers will be tempted to service the market demands of the torturing states. Amnesty has recognised this prospect and is examining whether weapons that are inherently "abusable" should be banned, like electro-shock and stun technology (12). The basic question is to what extent these systems undermine international treaties and human rights law. With its Sirus project, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is adopting a similar approach (13). To date, most weapons that have been prohibited, such as poison gas, exploding bullets, blinding laser weapons and landmines, were designed to inflict a specific injury, and to do so consistently. According to the ICRC, it is time to impose a general ban on all so-called non-lethal weapons that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering by specifically singling out anatomical, biochemical or physiological targets.
(1) See Maurice Najman, "Developing the weapons of the 21st century", and Francis Pisani, "Mars gives way to Minerva", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, February 1998 and August 1999 respectively.
(2) William D Hartung, "Ready for What? The New Politics of Pentagon Spending", World Policy Journal, New York, Spring 1999: http:// worldpolicy.org/HartungW.html
(3) Formerly involved in the rather more lethal US Army Special Phoenix programme in Vietnam - a campaign of 20,000 killings. See Lobster, Hull, 25 June 1993.
(4) See the website of the Quantico marine college (Virginia): http://www.concepts.quantico.usmc.mil/nonleth.htm
(5) Jason Glashow, Defense News, US, January 1996.
(6) Scott Gourley, "Soft Options", Jane's Defence Weekly, London, 17 July 1996.
(7) Outlines: http://www.dtic.mil/ndia/NLD3/libb.pdf
(8) Alliant Tech's Fishook mine, developed in 1996, aims for a cannister-launched area denial system to shoot out a thin wire with fishhooks "to cover a soccer sized area". Marketing manager Tom Bierman says that "It's intended to snag, it's not going to kill you". Not unless your co-targets panic.
(9) The UK defence ministry's Defence Evaluation Research Agency in Farnborough was looking at such a "freezer ray". See "Raygun Freezes Victims Without Causing Injuries", Sunday Times, London 9 May 1999.
(10) See Steve Wright, "An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control", Report to Scientific and Technological Options Assessment, European Parliament, 1998 (http://jwa.com/stoa.atpc.htm).
(11) See Commerce of Terror, Amnesty International, Paris, October 1999.
(12) See Amnesty International, "Arming the torturers", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, April 1997. Also available from Amnesty International, International Secretariat, Arming the Torturers, Electroshock Torture and the Spread of Stun Technology, London 1997.
(13) ICRC, The Sirus Project, Geneva, 1997: http/www.icrc.org
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