Stunning development: devastating weapons that do not kill

science that makes death unnecessary
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"Phasers on stun..."

The dream of being able to give an order like Star Trek's Captain Kirk - immobilise your opponent without killing or maiming - has long been part of science fiction and in recent years military scientists, particularly in the US, have been working to turn it into reality.

But it is all baloney, according to a report by Bradford University's Peace Studies department, published this week.

Developments in weapons technology have made it possible, in theory, to fight an entire war without anyone being killed. But in practice, say Dr Nick Lewer and Dr Steven Schofield, non-lethal weapons are just as likely to be used to overpower resistance in combination with the more conventional, lethal type, enhancing the latter's effectiveness.

The study, Non-Lethal Weapons: A Fatal Attraction? argues that while non-lethal weapons could be useful in "benign intervention" - peacekeeping operations, such as in Bosnia - there is an urgent need for serious debate to determine proper ground rules for their use.

Non-lethal - or "less-than-lethal" weapons have been around for hundreds of years. The Aztecs of central America, who needed live prisoners to sacrifice, had weapons designed to wound, not to kill.

More recently a number of non-lethal weapons have been in widespread use for the past 30 years. The most widely used are rubber or plastic bullets and CS gas, and also stun grenades.

In the last few years US companies have developed even more exotic non- lethal weapons including sticky foam and rubber balls to impede movement, sticky nets and chemical compounds to make fuel useless or to change the composition of roads. Low-frequency sound will cause a person's insides to vibrate, causing nausea and dizziness, but no permanent damage.

Other weapons, while "non-lethal", are widely detested - notably laser weapons which can blind soldiers, especially those peering through optical instruments. Weapons designed specifically to blind people were recently banned by international treaty, although those designed to smash optical instruments - which might blind people as a side-effect - were not.

A further complication is that, ironically, current international law permits only weapons designed primarily to kill, but prohibits those designed primarily to wound or disable.

Britain's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency is far more sceptical about non-lethal weapons, pointing out that if peacekeeping troops use them, the local parties are likely to respond with the traditional Kalashnikov. However, in difficult situations where hostages are taken, or where the identity of attackers is unclear, they may be of some limited use.

The Bradford authors said "research and development of new weapons is proceeding apace, in what amounts to an almost unseen arms race. Existing weapons conventions may be undermined as the arms industry throws up inventions that belonged in the realms of science fiction when those treaties were signed. Some allegedly non-lethal weapons rely on chemical and biological agents and are already snapping at the heels of international law".

The Bradford authors said further dangers include the use of non-lethal weapons for domestic repression - the use of electric stun batons as torture weapons is well documented and contemporary conflicts often blur the line between police and military operations.

The authors called for non-lethal weapons to be assessed, not as benign innovations but as just another type of weapon, capable of being used for good or ill. "War", as Clausewitz said, "is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." Lethal or non-lethal, it remains an act of force.

5 Non-Lethal Weapons: A Fatal Attraction? Dr Nick Lewer and Dr Steven Schofield; Zed Books, London, 1997; paperback pounds 12.95.