Microwaves, Lasers & Glue:
The Non-Lethal Weapons Update


Essay by
Scott Farrell


June 1999

Non-lethal weapons development

With the 21st century opening, the race is on to develop non-lethal weapons for use in military, police and private sectors. There are lots of spectacular claims, but so far the gizmos have yet to live up to the promises of their manufacturers.

For many years police have been experimenting with electrical gadgets, from dart-launching tasers to stun guns, as an option for bringing down a suspect in a situation where lethal force is not required. In theory, such high-voltage devices sound good, but on the street their performance can be hindered by a number of factors — from the subject's state of sobriety to the conductive quality of his clothing to the plain ol' fact of how thick his skin is.

Chemical agents have also been used to good effect, but they are only as reliable as the shifting wind, and even a good dose of pepper spray — the most effective of the breed — isn't 100 percent reliable.

A recent report in the science journal Discover reveals the difficulty in attempting to take non-lethal weapons to the next level of development. According to the article, the U.S. Marine Corps held a mock battle in Quantico, Virginia, to assess the viability of the next generation of non-lethal weapons in a combat situation.

1. Microwave cannon

The Marines began their bogus assault by bombarding their dummy enemies with microwave cannons. These guns send out the same high-frequency waves used in the oven you have on your kitchen counter, but they are designed to project their microwave beams in a tightly focused ray over hundreds of yards and emit just enough energy to raise the target's body temperature to about 103 or 104. The theory here is that nobody can fight a war when they're running a nasty fever.

The problem with this particular weapon, however, is that if the timer is set just a little too long, the subject winds up looking like an medium-rare rib roast. Additionally, the aiming for such a device is a little dicey, and the Marines found it tended to affect friend and foe alike.

2. Laser blaster

The second weapon in their non-lethal arsenal was a laser blaster — not a Star Wars-style weapon, but rather a pulsating beam of high intensity light meant to dazzle and disorient instead of kill. Unfortunately, any laser strong enough to stun a person is also strong enough to blind them if it comes in direct contact with the eye. This, of course, raises the question of whether blinding somebody for life is more "humane" than killing them outright with a bullet.

3. Caulking gun

Finally, for close combat work, the Marines employed a kind of gigantic caulking gun to squirt super sticky glue onto their enemies, effectively immobilizing them. The report shows a photograph of a mock soldier wrestling with a glob of glue which probably weighs about 100 pounds. Clearly the effects of the glue gun are far from instantaneous, and there's one other inconvenient side effect. The glue is strong to suffocate someone if it gets into their mouth and nose. Oops!

The Marines' mock "non-lethal" battle is a perfect example of the axiom: No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In practical use, the soldiers found that the glue gun was better for laying down a moat of glue around their foxholes and bunkers than it was for use in a firefight.

Unfortunately, the bad guys didn't take too long to discover that they could walk over the sticky barriers by simply laying down a sheet of plywood. Similarly, the laser dazzler was turned down to reduce the risk of "putting someone's eye out" and was instead used to scare enemy troops into thinking they had been targeted with a laser gun-sight.

4. Sonic stunner

According to the Discover article, some other non-lethal devices are also on the drawing board. One contractor is working on a sonic stunner which would send out ultra-low frequency to incapacitate someone by literally vibrating all of their internal organs. The problem here, as anyone knows who has been at a stop light beside one of those cars with a stereo system which seems to be powered by a nuclear reactor, is that those low frequency sound waves are very hard to deaden, which is why you hear that chunk-a chunk-a even when you can't hear the so-called music. This makes the soldier using the sonic stunner just as susceptible to its effects as the intended target.

5. Stink bomb

Perhaps the most promising idea for a non-lethal weapon comes straight from the pages of Junior High Pranks 101 — a stink bomb. The "Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate" is working to develop a stench gun which would deliver a revolting smell — such as sewage, rotting meat or hot garbage — which wouldn't do any real harm to non-combatants, buildings or equipment, yet (as anyone who has ever left something in the refrigerator too long can imagine) would be quite debilitating, at least in an enclosed area.

Wishing, and its dangers

Of course, anyone who has ever turned on an episode of Star Trek and seen the crew of the Enterprise set their phasers for stun knows just how valuable a fool-proof non-lethal weapon might be. In fact, the Pentagon has allocated $99 million this year alone for the research and development of non-lethal weapons.

But, as the saying goes, wishing doesn't make it so. The danger with non-lethal weapons really lies in the concept more than the reality. With the anti-gunners claiming that such a device is just around the corner, the argument, "Why does anyone need a gun?" is increasingly seductive. Only when you examine the facts do you realize that non-lethal defensive devices are a long, long way from being able to replace firearms.

One Defense Department analyst put it best after watching the Marine exercise. "Non-lethal weapons fit in nicely with a deep-seated belief that there is a technological solution to all problems," he said. The danger comes when the other side raises the ante. "We put some sticky goo on them, and they'll put a bullet through he head of a U.S. soldier."

Whether for a Marine hitting the beach in a hostile foreign country, a police officer protecting a local community, or a home-owner defending his family against an invader, our safety should never be entrusted to experimental technology.


© 2001 Scott Farrell

Weapontake at Troynovant
weapons, martial arts;
gun rights, freedom of self-defense

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