The Pentagon's quest for nonlethal arms is amazing. But is it smart?
Tucked away in the corner of a drab industrial park in Huntington Beach, Calif., is a windowless, nondescript building. Inside, under extremely tight security, engineers and scientists are working on devices whose ordinary appearance masks the oddity of their function. One is cone shaped, about the size of a fire hydrant. Another is a 3-foot-long metal tube, mounted on a tripod, with some black boxes at the operator's end. These are the newest weapons of war. For hundreds of years, sci-fi writers have imagined weapons that might use energy waves or pulses to knock out, knock down, or otherwise disable enemies--without necessarily killing them. And for a good 40 years the U.S. military has quietly been pursuing weapons of this sort. Much of this work is still secret, and it has yet to produce a usable "nonlethal" weapon. But now that the cold war has ended and the United States is engaged in more humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, the search for weapons that could incapacitate people without inflicting lethal injuries has intensified. Police, too, are keenly interested. Scores of new contracts have been let, and scientists, aided by government research on the "bioeffects" of beamed energy, are searching the electromagnetic and sonic spectrums for wavelengths that can affect human behavior. Recent advancements in miniaturized electronics, power generation, and beam aiming may finally have put such pulse and beam weapons on the cusp of practicality, some experts say. Weapons already exist that use lasers, which can temporarily or permanently blind enemy soldiers. So-called acoustic or sonic weapons, like the ones in the aforementioned lab, can vibrate the insides of humans to stun them, nauseate them, or even "liquefy their bowels and reduce them to quivering diarrheic messes," according to a Pentagon briefing. Prototypes of such weapons were recently considered for tryout when U.S. troops intervened in Somalia. Other, stranger effects also have been explored, such as using electromagnetic waves to put human targets to sleep or to heat them up, on the microwave-oven principle. Scientists are also trying to make a sonic cannon that throws a shock wave with enough force to knock down a man. While this and similar weapons may seem far-fetched, scientists say they are natural successors to projects already underway--beams that disable the electronic systems of aircraft, computers, or missiles, for instance. "Once you are into these antimateriel weapons, it is a short jump to antipersonnel weapons," says Louis Slesin, editor of the trade journal Microwave News. That's because the human body is essentially an electrochemical system, and devices that disrupt the electrical impulses of the nervous system can affect behavior and body functions. But these programs--particularly those involving antipersonnel research--are so well guarded that details are scarce. "People [in the military] go silent on this issue," says Slesin, "more than any other issue. People just do not want to talk about this." Projects underway. To learn what the Pentagon has been doing, U.S. News talked to more than 70 experts and scoured biomedical and engineering journals, contracts, budgets, and research proposals. The effort to develop exotic weapons is surprising in its range. Scores of projects are underway, most with funding of several hundred thousand dollars each. One Air Force lab plans to spend more than $100 million by 2003 to research the "bioeffects" of such weaponry. The benefits of bloodless battles for soldiers and law enforcement are obvious. But the search for new weapons--cloaked as they are in secrecy--faces hurdles. One is the acute skepticism of many conventional-weapons experts. "It is interesting technology but it won't end bloodshed and wars," says Harvey Sapolsky, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT. Says Charles Bernard, a former Navy weapons-research director: "I have yet to see one of these ray gun things that actually works." And if they do work, other problems arise: Some so-called nonlethal weapons could end up killing rather than just disabling victims if used at the wrong range. Others may easily be thwarted by shielding. Sterner warnings come from ethicists. Years ago the world drafted conventions and treaties to attempt to set rules for the use of bullets and bombs in war. But no treaties govern the use of unconventional weapons. And no one knows what will happen to people exposed to them over the long term. Moreover, medical researchers worry that their work on such things as the use of electromagnetic waves to stimulate hearing in the deaf or to halt seizures in epileptics might be used to develop weaponry. In fact, the military routinely has approached the National Institutes of Health for research information. "DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] has come to us every few years to see if there are ways to incapacitate the central nervous system remotely," Dr. F. Terry Hambrecht, head of the Neural Prosthesis Program at NIH, told U.S. News. "But nothing has ever come of it," he said. "That is too science fiction and far-fetched." Still, the Pentagon plans to conduct human testing with lasers and acoustics in the future, says Charles Swett, an assistant for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. Swett insists that the testing will be constrained and highly ethical. It may not be far off. The U.S. Air Force expects to have microwave weapons by the year 2015 and other nonlethal weaponry sooner. "When that does happen," warns Steven Metz, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College, "I think there will be a public uproar. We need an open debate on them now."