British defence scientists are working on a new generation of weapons which includes microwaves, lasers and chemical guns that could be used to quell riots, The Independent on Sunday has found.
One highly classified project is to develop a "vortex gun", for use in riots, which fires a powerful, doughnut-shaped pulse of air at supersonic speed. Experts say the weapon could fire riot-control gas or other chemicals to disperse mobs or disable enemy troops.
Scientific Applications & Research Associates, a US firm that has made such a gun, said it could fire shock waves that hit people "with enough force to knock them off balance. [It] feels like having a bucket of cold water thrown on to your chest". The research involves putting high-powered lasers and micro- wave weapons on cruise missiles and planes to "kill" an enemy's own weapons, although these new arms could be banned under international treaties.
A major British defence firm, Qinetiq, formed when the Government privatised its military testing agency, is understood to be investigating weapons that use lasers to "dazzle" the enemy, a technique the US military is now said to be using in Iraq.
British defence laboratories are also understood to have tested crowd-control foams including a much thicker version of the foam used to fight aircraft fires and another "sticky" foam that immobilises people caught in it.
These weapons are part of a taxpayer-funded, fast-expanding, secret programme of research by military laboratories and private defence firms into so-called non-lethal weapons.
The drive to find such weaponry sprang from attempts to replace the baton rounds, known as plastic bullets, which were heavily criticised in Chris Patten's report into policing in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s. Police now have a far wider range of "non-lethal weapons", including safer baton rounds, CS gas, Taser stun guns, pepper spray and, in Northern Ireland, water cannon.
Modern technologies have also made it much easier to create new arms, and Britain has a joint programme to develop military non-lethal weapons with the US, which is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into research.
The high-powered microwave weapon is part of a British programme code-named Virus, run by a little-known department of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) called the Deep Target Attack directorate. The weapon fires a powerful pulse of microwaves to completely or temporarily knock out equipment such as computers, radar or guidance systems.
The lasers, which could be fitted on aircraft or unmanned aircraft called drones, would be aimed at an enemy's electronic sensors and disable radar-guided anti-aircraft batteries.
A report by Canada's defence research agency, released by the Sunshine Project, a US-based group that investigates military research, says the UK is "one of the main players" in the world in investigating weapons using high-powered micro-waves, along with the US, France and Russia.
This revelation surprised Neil Davison, head of a research programme into non-lethal weapons at Bradford University. He said the MoD had a track record of secrecy over its research programme.
"We know the British armed forces have an active programme to find new non-lethal weapons and the UK is working closely with the United States, but the details of that collaborative arrangement are not openly available," he said.
Many of these techniques could be highly controversial, particularly the use of lasers to temporarily blind an opponent. Britain was forced to abandon high-powered lasers to dazzle jet pilots, a technique allegedly used during the Falklands War, because it contravened new global rules outlawing devices designed to permanently disable combatants or cause someone to crash a plane.
Mark Fulop, head of the bio-medical sciences department at the MoD's main defence research agency, confirmed that there is an extensive programme to find new non-lethal weapons. That included the vortex gun, which tests showed could be effective fired up to 48m from a target. "But it is a long way from being practical," he said. "We're watching to see what others are doing."Reuse content