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Intervention Without Messy Casualties? Pentagon Tries 'Non-Lethal Weapons'

April 19, 1992|By DAVID C. MORRISON

Further out on the edge of the technological envelope, the strategy council posits a notional armamentarium of non-lethal arms: "neural inhibitors" to short-circuit opposing troops' synoptic pathways, for example, as well as air-dispensed Thorazine-like tranquilizers to calm and neutralize enemy personnel, "anti-material biologicals" to contaminate an adversary's high-explosives or fuel, entangling devices to "foul propellers or rotor blades" and "jellied superacids" to "silently destroy key weapons systems."

"The term for all of that is probably better 'disabling,' " the Mr. Wolfowitz, the defense undersecretary, argued at a meeting with reporters last month. "The idea of 'non-lethal warfare' is an almost obscene oxymoron."

As an example of what he has in mind, Mr. Wolfowitz cited the injection of something like the recent, dreaded "Michaelangelo" computer virus into an enemy's defense networks. "That's disabling technology that can do a lot more than a single bomb," he said. "The idea that we ought to exploit our technology to the maximum to achieve the military result with the least unnecessary killing is a very interesting idea."

While supportive of research in this area, retired Army Col. Edward F. Bruner, now a defense specialist with the Congressional Research Service, cautions that "there are a lot of requirements that these non-lethal weapons would have to meet" before they could be shifted from the drawing board to the battlefield.

"First is the fact that we have to be able to protect our own troops against them. A lot of the types of weapons we're talking about are non-discriminatory, unlike a rifle bullet which is aimed," Colonel Bruner warned. "And, if they are easy enough to protect your own troops against, then the enemy might just as easily come up with countermeasures. Another problem is that many of these are weather-dependent, as opposed to a bullet or a bomb, which will have an effect no matter what the weather."

A central attraction of non-lethal arms for their proponents is the latitude they might give Washington to intervene military around the world without bringing down on itself the opprobrium of big body counts.

"Destablizing behavior in the Third World countries will obtain beyond the millennium," the strategy council asserts in a non-lethality briefing. "The cost of not countering this behavior is unthinkable."

Or, as the Navy observed in a draft policy paper on non-lethal weapons issued last Many, "In a real sense, this emerging class of weapons and systems is a more civilized means to achieve political ends when lethal or less discriminate force would traditionally be the only option."

But, asserts William M. Arkin, who has extensively studied Persian Gulf war casualty rates as the director of military research for Greenpeace International, because non-lethal technologies would mostly be targeted against sophisticated materials, they would be most applicable to defeating highly centralized and electronics-dependent powers such as Iraq. Permanently smashing Iraq's large army was very much a U.S. war aim last year, in fact. In most instances, non-lethality would have been irrelevant to achieving that strategic goal.

Soldiers also traditionally prefer to exact "hard kills" against opposing troops and hardware, as compared to less-permanent and less-immediately verifiable "soft kills." In this regard, if enacted as doctrine, non-lethality demands a tidal sea change in military thought.

In any event, "contrary to the proposal on non-lethality, it is not gadgetry that will solve our problems" in waging counterinsurgency warfare, Mr. Arkin contended. "We'll not do any better against a militia-based popular defense with new hardware. If we undertake such an intervention in the future, we will have the same results that we had in Vietnam or that the Soviets had in Afghanistan."

David C. Morrison is national security correspondent for National Journal.

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