The Pentagon's quest for nonlethal arms is amazing. But is it smart?
Laser ethics What happened with U.S. forces in Somalia foreshadows the impending ethical dilemmas. In early 1995, some U.S. marines were supplied with so-called dazzling lasers. The idea was to inflict as little harm as possible if Somalis turned hostile. But the marines' commander then decided that the lasers should be "de-tuned" to prevent the chance of their blinding citizens. With their intensity thus diminished, they could be used only for designating or illuminating targets. On March 1, 1995, commandos of U.S. Navy SEAL Team 5 were positioned at the south end of Mogadishu airport. At 7 a.m., a technician from the Air Force's Phillips Laboratory, developer of the lasers, used one to illuminate a Somali man armed with a rocket-propelled grenade. A SEAL sniper shot and killed the Somali. There was no question the Somali was aiming at the SEALs. But the decision not to use the laser to dazzle or temporarily blind the man irks some of the nonlethal-team members. "We were not allowed to disable these guys because that was considered inhumane," said one. "Putting a bullet in their head is somehow more humane?" Despite such arguments, the International Red Cross and Human Rights Watch have since led a fight against antipersonnel lasers. In the fall of 1995, the United States signed a treaty that prohibits the development of lasers designed "to cause permanent blindness." Still, laser weapons are known to have been developed by the Russians, and proliferation is a big concern. Also, the treaty does not forbid dazzling or "glare" lasers, whose effects are temporary. U.S. military labs are continuing work in this area, and commercial contractors are marketing such lasers to police.
Acoustic pain The next debate may well focus on acoustic or sonic weapons. Benign sonic effects are certainly familiar, ranging from the sonic boom from an airplane to the ultrasound instrument that "sees" a baby in the uterus. The military is looking for something less benign--an acoustic weapon with frequencies tunable all the way up to lethal. Indeed, Huntington Beach-based Scientific Applications & Research Associates Inc. (SARA) has built a device that will make internal organs resonate: The effects can run from discomfort to damage or death. If used to protect an area, its beams would make intruders increasingly uncomfortable the closer they get. "We have built several prototypes," says Parviz Parhami, SARA's CEO. Such acoustic fences, he says, could be deployed today. He estimates that five to 10 years will be needed to develop acoustic rifles and other more exotic weapons, but adds, "I have heard people as optimistic as one to two years." The military also envisions acoustic fields being used to control riots or to clear paths for convoys. SARA's acoustic devices have already been tested at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, near the company's Huntington Beach office. And they were considered for Somalia. "We asked for acoustics," says one nonlethal weapons expert who was there. But the Department of Defense said, "No," since they were still untested. The Pentagon feared they could have caused permanent injury to pregnant women, the old, or the sick. Parhami sees acoustics "as just one more tool" for the military and law enforcement. "Like any tool, I suppose this can be abused," he says. "But like any tool, it can be used in a humane and ethical way." Toward the end of World War II, the Germans were reported to have made a different type of acoustic device. It looked like a large cannon and sent out a sonic boomlike shock wave that in theory could have felled a B-17 bomber. In the mid-1940s, the U.S. Navy created a program called Project Squid to study the German vortex technology. The results are unknown. But Guy Obolensky, an American inventor, says he replicated the Nazi device in his laboratory in 1949. Against hard objects the effect was astounding, he says: It could snap a board like a twig. Against soft targets like people, it had a different effect. "I felt like I had been hit by a thick rubber blanket," says Obolensky, who once stood in its path. The idea seemed to founder for years until recently, when the military was intrigued by its nonlethal possibilities. The Army and Navy now have vortex projects underway. The SARA lab has tested its prototype device at Camp Pendleton, one source says.