forumpurpsm.GIF (8368 bytes)

Nonlethal Weapons

Will nonlethal weapons offer kinder, gentler warfare or expand the options for armed forces to inflict pain and suffering?


During the last few years, far-reaching changes in both local and global security circumstances have sparked growing interest in nonlethal weapons. As it becomes increasingly less likely that nations will have to fight major interstate wars, the academic and research communities, military and police forces, and politicians are turning their attention to operations other than war.1

Particular attention is being focused on urban-style warfare in situations where combatants and non-combatants are mixed and the distinction between who is and who is not a combatant is blurred. Also of concern are arenas such as humanitarian crises where large military operations are not particularly useful.

The concept of nonlethal weapons is not new; weapons such as incapacitant gases and plastic and rubber bullets have been used for many years.2 But now, rapid advances in technology are multiplying the types and numbers of nonlethal weapons. Such technologies combined with other advances in the areas of precision targeting, unmanned weapons-delivery systems, sophisticated command-and-control systems, intelligence gathering and analysis, miniaturization of power sources and components, and portable power-supply units can offer credible alternatives to lethal force in certain situations.

Nonlethal weapons can be used by themselves as stand-alone systems or in combination with traditional lethal weapons. In either case, nonlethal weapons may help reduce the risk of excessive military force, promote international political support for peace-keeping operations, and minimize damage to roads and buildings, and the environment.


Certainly, the term nonlethal has a reassuring sound to it. Compared to lethal weapons, the prospect of a new generation of weapons that could minimize injuries resonates strongly in public opinion, which has grown increasingly reluctant to countenance deaths and serious casualties through military action, especially in the era of instant media coverage. But the term nonlethal, when applied to weapons, has been subject to criticism as both a euphemism and an oxymoron.

Some have suggested other terms that may more accurately reflect the true nature of nonlethal weapons. These include less-than-lethal, weapons that disable, soft-kill weapons that briefly incapacitate an opponent or disrupt information and communication capabilities, and prelethal—implying temporary incapacitation to facilitate a follow-up attack with conventional weapons—and worse-than-lethal, weapons.

The latter term highlights the terrible physical and psychological trauma that may affect people if the use of these weapons results in severe injuries, for example, blinding by lasers.

Proponents of nonlethal weapons acknowledge the ambiguity of the term, since the use of any weapon brings with it the risk of injury and death. But, they argue, the term nonlethal accurately reflects the intention neither to kill nor permanently harm. For this reason, they reject the terms disabling or less-than-lethal because those terms imply deliberate, permanent effects, such as loss of limbs or blindness.

For our purposes, nonlethal weapons are those explicitly designed and primarily employed to incapacitate personnel or materiel while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment.3


Nonlethal weapons have applications across the whole spectrum of the use of force, including close arrest situations in which police must subdue a violent suspect, neighborhood domestic disputes, counter-terrorism and antidrug operations, military operations in urban terrain, peacekeeping activities, and conventional war. New nonlethal technologies will give military commanders and civilian police forces more options to resolve situations without resorting to lethal methods, so that the force applied is proportional to the threat.

Moreover, technical revolutions can reshape the way in which wars are fought in much the same revolutionary way that the invention of gunpowder or the advent of mechanization did. These technological inventions, combined with new military perspectives, can propel dramatic and decisive change.4

Of crucial importance is control of the battle space, where the emphasis is on the management and control of the battle with unprecedented levels of precision and speed. Command and control of the operation requires rapid integration of information and intelligence to speed up decision making while denying the same capabilities to the enemy, through counter measures such as electronic equipment, anti-radar missiles, and precision-guided, or smart, munitions.5 Within this new framework, nonlethal weapons can limit unintended or undesired effects and allow military forces to attain a degree of psychological precision to complement physical precision

But the acquisition of nonlethal weapons raises some hard questions. For instance, is the drive to interest military procurement offices in nonlethal weapons fueled by the manufacturers’ need to push their product or by the perception of a real need? What can these new technologies do that existing ones can’t already do? How do nonlethal weapons fit in with existing military mandates and projected scenarios? Can the cost of their procurement be squeezed from an already constrained defense budget, and at what price to other systems? As with any weapons system, nonlethal weapons must fill gaps and shortfalls in current military capability requirements and have quantifiable military benefits.

Nonlethal weapons technologies are extremely diverse (see Sidebar), but antipersonnel and antimateriel projects currently being developed and deployed fall within four broadly defined categories, with some overlap:

n Antipersonnel, to control crowds and riots; incapacitate individuals; deny access, for example by erecting barrier devices; and retake buildings and other structures.

n Antimateriel, to disable or neutralize equipment and facilities and deny access by opposing forces to certain areas, weapons platforms, and communications systems.

n Countercommunications in command and control, such as electronic warfare that disables communications systems, provides faulty information, or allows electronic control of battle space.

n Civilian and military propaganda, information and disinformation and the use of media and exotic technologies such as holographic images and subliminal suggestion in psychological warfare.

In addition to plastic and rubber bullets, nonlethal weapons currently in use include pepper spray, flash-bang and stun grenades that temporarily blind and stun people, and 12-gauge bean-bag rounds that can be shot from conventional shotguns. The U.S. military is currently developing nonlethal claymore-type mines that explode out hard rubber balls instead of shrapnel, and slippery agents that make it difficult or impossible for people and vehicles to advance. Other new types of weapons being developed include acoustic and microwave devices that can deafen people and inactivate an opponent’s communications systems, advanced weapons-delivery systems such as robotics and unmanned aerial vehicles, and malodorant compounds to be delivered by microcapsules.6

Nonlethal weapons have already been deployed in military operations. For example, in 1995 the U.S. Marine Corps, in a United Nations peacekeeping operation known as United Shield in Somalia, equipped its soldiers with a wide variety of nonlethal weapons, including laser guns, pepper spray, and flash bangs. Similar nonlethal weapons were deployed by the U.S. armed forces between 1995 and 1996, in Operation Restore Democracy in Haiti, and in 1996 and 1997 in the United Nations’ Operation Joint Endeavor in Bosnia.


From a strategic perspective, analysis of the future can appear gloomy. Actual and potential threats to security come from a wide spectrum of factors: the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons; the acquisition by more nations of ballistic missiles; an increasing number of violent and protracted intranational conflicts; disintegration of nations, leading to breakdowns of political and social order, which leads to complex political emergencies and humanitarian crises; and the spread of international crime syndicates and terrorist organizations. These rather depressing scenarios lead some to view the coming decades as an "age of chaos" or a "time of violent peace."7 In such scenarios, not only are traditional military responses to conventional international warfare not appropriate, but current military doctrine and strategy cannot deal with such asymmetrical warfare (see "Asymmetric Warfare" in this issue of FORUM). Nonlethal weapons have the potential to fill the gap.

Moreover, as military forces become more involved in police actions, the public will want to hold them accountable to existing national and international legislation that governs the rights of civilians within the context of civil law. While nonlethal weapons give commanders more politically acceptable responses in violent situations, military leaders stress that their forces are still required to be prepared for conventional war fighting. This means that soldiers are trained and equipped to win battles quickly, with as few casualties as possible. A key question is whether assault combat troops are the right elements to be used in situations where nonlethality is a prime concern or whether nations should create special branches of the armed forces trained to intervene in civil conflicts and humanitarian crises.

Another concern is the tension that often exists between the policy goals of individual sovereign states on the one hand and collective international security and humanitarian crises on the other. This tension often causes clashes of strategic national interests, heightens the differences of cultural and ethnic values, raises disagreements about appropriate responses to humanitarian crises caused by violent conflict or abuses of human rights, and challenges allegiances to international power or influence blocs. But these national and international policy requirements sometimes coincide, for example when United Nations Security Council members agree on the need to intervene with UN forces in a humanitarian crisis. A policy for acquiring nonlethal weapons should carefully consider their potential use as instruments in promoting national policy as well as their utility in humanitarian intervention.


In 1907, 46 nations at the Second Hague Peace Conference agreed on 10 conventions governing the rules of war. These conventions were significantly extended through the post-1950 Geneva Convention. Though these covenants were originally intended to address the use of conventional weapons—including, after World War II, chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons—it is clear that the use of nonlethal weapons must also be subject to internationally accepted laws of armed conflict, international humanitarian law as outlined in these and other conventions, and treaties that prohibit or control certain classes of weapons.

Within this international framework of the law of armed conflict, the concept of proportionality asserts that all weapons can cause suffering but also requires that any suffering inflicted in times of war be balanced against military necessity. That is, combatants and noncombatants alike should not be subjected to unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury. This principle of minimizing unnecessary suffering provides a legal and ethical baseline against which the utility of weapons can be judged, and it has provided a stimulus for specific bans on particular weapons such as dumdum bullets, which split apart on impact causing huge wounds, and bullets coated with substances that impair the healing of wounds.

Such ethical dilemmas were recently highlighted in discussions by the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as the international humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch, over nonlethal blinding weapons. The debate revolved around whether blinding lasers should be operationally deployed.8

The policy question involves a tradeoff. If the United States were to use blinding lasers and other maiming weapons, would the increase in effectiveness that might result be worth the loss of international and domestic support for U.S. armed forces? In what circumstances should lasers be used? Given a choice, would it be preferable to kill a combatant or take actions that could leave him or her alive but permanently maimed? There are those who postulate that it is better to be blind than dead. Some analysts think that banning such weapons by major powers like the United States would mean that fewer would be made—thus reducing the danger of proliferation—and weapons that were made would be easier to keep track of.

A second concept of this legal framework that applies to nonlethal weapons is that of discrimination. This principle prohibits the use of methods or means of warfare that cannot be directed against a specific military target and thus may strike combatants and noncombatants without distinction. While all weapons can be used indiscriminately, some by their very nature, such as many bacteriological and chemical weapons, cannot be directed at military targets alone.

A third principle of the law of war, the Martens Clause set forth in 1899 at the First Hague Peace Conference, is that parties in conflict do not have unlimited rights to use any means of injuring the enemy. This concept—known as the customary principles concept—assumes a general consensus regarding what constitutes civilized behavior, the laws of humanity, and the dictates of public conscience. This principle is of particular relevance to weapons that did not exist when conventions were drawn up.

Aside from the capacity for nonlethal weapons to violate international conventions governing warfare, there is also the danger these weapons may violate the standards of international arms control treaties. Certain chemical agents could pose a threat to the Chemical Weapons Convention. For example, do hallucinogens and other psychotropic substances and chemical incapacitants qualify as toxic chemicals or riot control agents under the CWC? If they do qualify as toxics, is their use prohibited? Critics of the CWC, which prohibits the use of chemical riot control agents against combatants in wartime, say it would be a tragic irony if nations used lethal means against an enemy because nonlethal means were banned by international convention.

Another controversial point is whether deployment of nonlethal weapons would contravene the Geneva Conventions or violate provisions of the 1981 UN Inhumane Weapons Convention that ban the use of weapons, lethal or not—such as land-mines—that affect civilian populations. These problems are further complicated by the current blurring of boundaries between police or peacekeeping actions and conventional warfare.

Some civilian critics of nonlethal weapons claim more sinister motives for these weapons’ popularity with police forces and their political masters, because these technologies offer dangerous opportunities for social control.9 This suspicion is particularly relevant to the developing technologies of psychochemicals and biogenetic engineering, which would allow a state to modify the behavior of an enemy.

Nonlethal weapons have also been used by repressive governments to torture their own citizens. A March 1997 report by Amnesty International highlighted the widespread use of electric batons, rods, prods, truncheons, and other electro-shock devices in more than 50 countries where electric shock torture and ill treatment have been reported since 1990.10 At present, there is little or no effective national or international regulation on the design, use, and trade in electro-shock devices.

Even in the civilian arena, non-lethal technologies designed to restrain or prevent violence and escape are increasingly reported to be used as punishment. For example, Amnesty International reported that a judge in the United States administered an electric shock of 50,000 volts to a prisoner who was wearing a stun-belt because he kept disrupting court procedures.11 And a U.S. company that manufactures stun belts primarily for use in restraining violent criminals reported that their model had been used 27 times, eight of them accidentally.


The future utility of nonlethal weapons is hotly debated. Many military analysts and civilian researchers remind us that despite hopes that war may be transformed into a genteel electronic exchange, war will always remain brutal, and many adversaries will not play by the rules. Some even regard Western sensibilities about the savagery of warfare as a weakness.12

However useful less-deadly arms may be in future U. S. engagements overseas, the ultimate big stick will remain high velocity metal fragments that slice and dice.13 But, on a more positive note, some claim that nonlethal weapon are not merely tactical tools but offer powerful new operational and strategic concepts that allow states to achieve political and military objectives in a less violent manner14.

Many analysts see great potential for nonlethal weapons, which can provide politicians and the military more diplomatic room to maneuver before having to resort to lethal force. Nonlethal weapons allow commanders

to apply the precise psychological pressure required to modify an adversary’s behavior in a certain way.  Nonlethality can be used to deter or pre-empt conflict, separate belligerents and allow for a    "cooling-off period," encourage negotiation, protect noncombatants, facilitate disaster relief and humanitarian assistance operations, enhance the effectiveness of lethal weapons and other instruments of national power, and reduce risks to U.S. forces.15

On a more cynical note, an experienced U.S. infantry battalion operations officer noted the public relations value of deploying nonlethal weapons: it shows a caring face for domestic consumption. Nonlethal weapons, the officer said, demonstrate a reverence for life, a proof of civility and restraint, and a commitment to the use of minimal force. These considerations no doubt played a part in the decision of the U.S. Marine Corps to take some nonlethal weapons with them to Somalia.

The news coverage of these weapons prior to United Shield was almost universally positive. The military was bathed in the bright, approving glow of political correctness because the new nonlethal technologies promised kinder, gentler operations other than war.16

Whether one views this emerging technology as malign or benign, it does offer force commanders more options. But increased options can complicate responses for commanders on the ground confronted with more sophisticated rules of engagement and fine judgement of when to choose between lethal and nonlethal weapons.

Moreover, there are logistical problems peculiar to nonlethal weapons. For example, if nonlethal weapons are used, extra personnel will be required to look after those affected by the weapons. In war games, the U.S. Marine Corps discovered that it could take two minders to manage every nonlethal casualty. In December 1997, the U.S. Marine Corps considered the implications of using an incapacitating agent during the Japanese embassy siege in Lima, Peru, where 400 hostages were held by gunmen. According to its calculations, it would have taken an infantry-battalion-size force of minders alone to cope with nonlethal weapon casualties. One officer has noted that for a similar urban combat operation in a city the size of Seoul, with over 10 million people—nearly twice as densely populated as Lima—the implications become staggering. This doesn’t mean that nonlethal weapons should never be used, but it does serve to reinforce the premise that they will not necessarily make life easier or less complicated.17


To date, few nonlethal weapons have been deployed, and U.S. nonlethal capabilities have been described as minimal, relying mostly on established nonlethal weapons such as rubber and plastic baton rounds and pepper spray.18 However, this is soon likely to change with some of the newer nonlethal weapons almost ready for field testing, in particular technologies such as nonlethal claymore type mines filled with rubber stinger balls, acoustic weapons, microwave devices, and agents designed to stop vehicles. Many nonlethal weapons of the future will have rheostatic controls that move along the spectrum between lethal and nonlethal. This raises important ethical questions about the implications of nonlethal weapons on the laws of war, international humanitarian law, and international arms control treaties and conventions.

Politicians and the public like the thought of more humane and bloodless wars; but in the near term, nonlethal weapons will not supplant or replace lethal weapons or cause a radical decline in conventional warfare. Nonlethal weapons should not be seen as a panacea or simple technological fix to the problems encountered, for example, by UN peacekeeping forces.19 Situations such as crowd control, delivery of humanitarian aid, and separation of combatants will always be problematic, but nonlethal weapons will offer a wider range of options to field commanders before they have to resort to greater degrees of brute force and lethality. Compared with other weapons systems, nonlethal weapons will not consume disproportionate personnel and funding resources. However, emerging technology and the changing roles of military forces will keep nonlethal weapons firmly on the agenda and of increasing importance in the evolving strategic and technological horizon of warfare.n

Weapons of Less Destruction

Nonlethal weapons with antipersonnel and anti-materiel objectives are already being developed and deployed around the world. Key anti-personnel tasks include rapidly incapacitating personnel and targeting combatants while causing the least possible harm to noncombatants; controlling crowds; denying people access to certain areas; and clearing facilities and structures of personnel.

Antimateriel tasks include denying access of vehicles to an area; disabling land vehicles, sea vessels, and aircraft; disabling or destroying weapons of mass destruction; disrupting an enemy’s command, control, and information analysis systems; blocking transport routes; and paralyzing energy supplies. Nonlethal weapons that show a significant promise of dual use against personnel and materiel by law enforcement agencies, as well as by the military services, are likely to receive higher priority than those that do not.

The technologies range from the conventional to the nightmarish. Dual-purpose nonlethal weapons also include systems to interfere with information systems. One of the better known and simplest to deploy on a global scale are computer viruses that can corrupt or destroy computer programs. Hackers have already infiltrated major U.S. military sites. But high-power microwaves can also destroy electronic systems. These can be produced by airborne nuclear explosions, which also cause huge electromagnetic pulses, and by conventional explosives. Of course, these could also disable or kill military personnel and civilians.

Sonic beams, shock waves, or directed blast devices and ultrasonic beam weapons can also be directed at people and equipment, and sensor-guided entanglement nets, which may also be adhesive-coated or electrified, can trap people or entangle the rotor blades of helicopters.

Nonlethal weapons that specifically target materiel include ultra-fine carbon fibers that can be sprayed on power supplies to disrupt electrical and electronic equipment. Combustion inhibitors can cut power to vehicle engines using electrical or chemical methods. Embrittlements are liquids that change the molecular structure of metals so they crack easily. And super caustics and corrosives can corrode or degrade structural materials in buildings.

Weapons targeting military and civilian personnel include chemical riot-control incapacitants and inflammatories such as pepper sprays; calmative agents that lower aggression or cause sleepiness; distraction devices that use light and sound effects that can be combined with irritants and dyes; infrared and ultrasound devices that direct acoustic pressure waves to damage internal organs; kinetic energy devices such as wooden baton rounds, rubber bullets, rubber stingballs and pellets, plastic bullets, sponge grenades, beanbags, and the JellyBaton, a soft stick that deals a nonlethal, but incapacitating, blow; low-energy lasers that can temporarily or permanently blind; laser batons and strobe lights that distract and disorient; high energy lasers that cause extensive burning; loud noise generators to incapacitate or disorient; malodorous liquids known as skunk shots; vomiting agents that cause nausea; optical flash or explosive devices that dazzle or cause temporary blindness; devices that transmit subliminal suggestions; holographic devices that project propaganda or frightening images in the sky; and water cannons, high-pressure jets that may be marked with a dye to enable identification of targets.

Nonlethal environmental weapons include defoliants such as Agent Orange that destroy vegetation, thus denying food and cover to an enemy, and climate control devices that trigger rain or disperse fog to improve or degrade visibility and mobility of troops.

While some of these weapons are truly benign in that they don’t directly maim or kill people, many share the potential to provoke unintended consequences including prolonged suffering, slow death, or long-term psychological damage. Though the future of nonlethal weapons is uncertain, it is clear that technology has already outpaced the ability of the military community to agree on the ethical consequences of using nonlethal weapons.n NL

Nick Lewer is a researcher in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom. 

1. There is now an extensive literature about nonlethal weapons. For example, see: Malcolm Dando, A New Form of Warfare: The Rise of Non-Lethal Weapons (London: Brasseys, 1996); David Morehouse, Nonlethal Weapons: War without Death (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996); Nick Lewer and Steven Schofield, Non-Lethal Weapons: A Fatal Attraction? Technologies and Strategies for 21st Century Conflict, (London: Zed Books, 1997).

2. J.F. Coates, Non-Lethal and Nondestructive Combat in Cities Overseas (Arlington, VA: Institute for Defense Analysis, Science and Technology Division, May 1970).

3. C. Swett, DOD Policy Regarding Non-Lethal Force, paper given at a conference on the Future of Non-Lethal Weapons, Jane’s Defence Group, London, November 20-21, 1997.

4. S. Metz and J. Kievit, The Revolution in Military Affairs and Conflict Short of War (Carlisle, PA: U. S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, July 1994).

5. Lewer and Schofield, Nonlethal Weapons: A Fatal Attraction?

6. A. Mazarra, "US Department of Defence Joint NLW Programme: A View to the Future," paper given at Jane’s Defence Group Nonlethal Weapons 1998 conference, Non-Lethal Weapons: Development and Doctrine, London, December 1-2, 1998.

7. Paul Rogers and Malcolm Dando, A Violent Peace: Global Security after the Cold War (London: Brassey’s, 1992).

8. See, for example, Louise Doswald-Beck, ed., Blinding Weapons: Reports of the Meetings of Experts Convened by the Inter-
national Committee of the Red Cross on Battlefield Laser Weapons 1989-1991
(Geneva: ICRC, 1993); Human Rights Watch, Blinding Laser Weapons: The Need to Ban a Cruel and Inhumane Weapon (London: Human Rights Watch, September 1995).

9. R. Ballantyne, "The Technology of Political Control," Covert Affairs Quarterly 64 (Spring 1998), pp. 17-23.

10. Arming the Torturers: Electro-Shock Torture and the Spread of Stun Technology (London: Amnesty International, March 1997).

11. M. Kettle, "50,000 Volts for Talking in Court," Amnesty International Medical Group Newsletter 10 (3) (August 1998), p. 2.

12. C. Dunlap, "21st-Century Land Warfare: Four Dangerous Myths," Parameters (Autumn 1997), pp. 27-37.

13. David Morrison, "More-than-Lethal Weapons," National Journal (July 22, 1995).

14. Col. John Warden III, U.S. Air Force, Commandant of the Air Command and Staff College, quoted in R. Bunker and L. Moore, Nonlethal Technology and Fourth Epoch War: A New Paradigm of Politico-Military Force, Land Warfare Paper No. 23, Institute of Land Warfare (Arlington, VA: Association of the United States Army, February 1996).

15. D. Lovelace and S. Metz, Nonlethality and American Landpower: Strategic Context and Operational Concepts (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, June 1998).

16. M. Stanton, "What Price Sticky Foam?" Proceedings (January 1996), pp. 58-60.

17. G. Anderson, "Employing Non-Lethal Force: A View from the Field," paper given at the conference on the Future of Non-Lethal Weapons, Jane’s Defence Group, London, November 20-21, 1997.

18. US Marine Corps Colonel Mazaar, quoted in Scott Gourley, "Measure for Measure," Jane’s Defence Weekly (June 24, 1998).

19. Nick Lewer and Steven Schofield, "Non-Lethal Weapons for UN Operations," International Peacekeeping 4 (3) (Autumn 1997), pp. 71-93.

forumsquare.GIF (154 bytes)

FORUM Homepage

Table of Contents