Non-Lethal Weapons

The year is 1997. A group of terrorists is holding hostages inside an American Embassy in Central America, and the President is receiving a Pentagon briefing on various options.

What about hauling out the isotropic radiator? Fired from a conventional weapon, an explosive burst superheats a surrounding gaseous plasma and inspires a laserbright flash. For the terrorists, it’s as if they just came out of a dark room and stared directly up at the sun. But the retinal damage is only temporary. Or how about using infrasound? From banks of speakers driven by highpowered amplifiers, very low frequency sound waves are generated that can easily penetrate most buildings and vehicles. Not only will the terrorists quickly become disoriented, before long they’ll also be vomiting and defecating.

Another option is always VSI – Visual Stimulus and Illusion. A holographic image is projected into the clouds right outside the embassy window. When the terrorists look out, one of their long-lost martyrs simply tells them to let everybody go.

These projected scenarios are not far-fetched in certain Pentagon and Justice Department circles. Isotropic radiators, infrasound, and VSI are all part of a new concept of warfare (or riot/crime control) known as nonlethal defense, or “disabling technologies.” The program titles – High Power Microwaves, Liquid Metal Embrittlement, Non-Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse – are best envisioned in the hands of Luke Skywalker, Batman, or maybe Captain Crunch. But proponents believe that these will soon mean incapacitating people and damaging equipment with less bloodshed, less property destruction, and less environmental havoc. Research and development is moving rapidly forward at Los Alamos, Sandia, Edgewood, Picatinny, and other military laboratories.

After the disaster at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Attorney General Janet Reno wrote to then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin on June 3, 1993, about exploring “dual use applications by both the military and law enforcement” of such projects as acoustic beam technologies. Then, following the ill-fated Ranger raid in Somalia last October, Aspin stated publicly for the first time that nonlethal weapons could play a vital role in future peacekeeping operations, citing crowd control and monitoring of demilitarized zones.

In mid-November, the initial public coming-together of the Defense and Justice Departments on this matter occurred at a largely-classified two-day conference inside the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). Featured mealtime speakers were Lieutenant General Richard Trefry, now-retired Military Advisor to President Bush, Dr. Edward Teller of H-Bomb fame, and until she cancelled at the last minute and had her prepared speech read by an aide, Attorney General Reno. Behind publicly-closed doors, General “Shy” Meyer (retired Army Chief of Staff) and top brass from all three services listened to such technical talks as “RF Weapons: A Very Attractive Non-Lethal Option.” RF stands for radio frequency.

The conference was organized and MC’d by Dr. John. B. Alexander, a 56-year-old retired Colonel who went from commanding Special Forces in Vietnam to studying near-death experiences under Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (gaining a Ph.D. in thanatology). Back in 1980, in an article titled “The New Mental Battlefield: ‘Beam Me Up Spock,'” published in the Military Review, Alexander described how “literally thousands of people have reported the experience of being discretely and consciously located outside of their physical bodies and yet able to view themselves from that perspective with a total awareness of activities in that area. This phenomenon is frequently associated with life-threatening circumstances such as accidents, illness or extreme danger.” Such out-of-body travel, Alexander suggested, might be a means “to penetrate secured areas to retrieve desired data.”

Since considered the military’s resident expert on the Paranormal, Alexander moved on in 1988 to take charge of non-lethal defense research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations on October 27, 1993, Alexander noted: “Nothing about this concept should detract from maintaining a highly mobile and extremely lethal force.” Or, as Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, says: “I doubt this portends a fundamental change in the structure of our military system or future war-fighting.”

Still, there seemed to be considerable enthusiasm for nonlethality among the almost all-male crowd that came to the November conference, sporting name-tags identifying them as CIA, DIA, DOE, National Security Council, Secret Service, Martin Marietta, Lockheed, Grumman, and many more. As one conference speaker, Joseph Burger of the Pentagon’s office of Peacekeeping & Peace Enforcement, put it: “Many view nonlethal weapons as futuristic or quite unrealistic. But in the new realities of foreign policy, the U.S. is dealing in uncharted waters. And the ability to destabilize an enemy by other than conventional means has the ability to revolutionize conflict settlement.”

I am standing in front of a conference exhibit table for the Army’s Edgewood Research Development and Engineering Center. On the back wall are displays of the Edgewood experience with “Anti-material and Anti-personnel Technologies” since the 1920s, the latter being sensory irritants, smoke technologies, incapacitants, and novel riot control. Edgewood was also the site of drug testing on some 7000 unwitting soldiers during the 1950s.

An Army videotape is rolling, titled “Human Aspects of Using Inflatable Devices for Rapid Confinement Area Displacement.” It depicts a feasibility study conducted inside a specially constructed plexiglass room that’s been filled to ceiling height with beach balls. Men are seen stumbling around in sphere-shock, totally without any sense of direction. Theoretically, the beach balls would be self-inflating and might be emplaced inside, say, a prison ceiling ready to be dropped at the touch of a guard’s hand to quell rioters.

Another tape segment proceeds depicting the testing on ferrets of new calmative agents with antidotes. “We put you down, we can bring you out,” Edgewood’s Larry Bickford explains to me. Nerve-racking is a more apt way to describe the various wares on the Edgewood display table. The “Soft Rag” is a flying rubber donut, “much safer than a bullet,” designed to knock you down when fired from an M16. Next to it is the new, improved “Sting Rag” model which contains CS tear gas.

I ask about the wall picture labeled “aqueous foams.” “Sort of like a washing machine gone crazy,” says Bickford, the sprayed-in suds effect bringing about lack of traction and disorientation due to obscured vision. There are also sticky foams and slippery gels, producing wondrous wound-up-in-spaghetti and banana-peel type effects. According to David Boyd, scientific director at the National Institutes of Justice (NIJ), the only trouble with this sticky foam is “trying to figure out how to clean it up.” Without a molecular reversal of some sort, this particular super-adhesive is currently too tenacious to disentangle its victim. These latter ideas, incidentally, originated with the Defense Nuclear Agency as a means of securing nuclear sites from potential terrorists.

At New Mexico’s Los Alamos and Sandia labs, Liquid Metal Embrittlement is being designed to change and severely weaken the molecular structure of metals or alloys. Because it is mercury-based, the idea is to protect the operator by having him apply it with a felt tip marker. Supercaustics, nicknamed C+, are being formulated to cause tires and shoe soles to deteriorate, or damage asphalt roads and roof tops. Anti-Traction Technology includes lubricants ready to render railroads, ramps, runways and stairs ineffective for limited periods.

On the biological side, how about microbes that eat high explosives? Or, better yet, microbes engineered to feast upon the insulation of an enemy’s computers or electrical wiring. As John Alexander has said, “There is almost nothing that some microbe won’t eat, so the potential applications are extensive.”

But are we really moving from “smart” weapons to “nice” ones? Take the High Power Microwaves being investigated at Los Alamos, for example. The purpose of HPM’s is to disrupt electronic systems – but should a human being get in between the beam and its source, notes weapons expert Janet Morris, “you may not be dead, but you might need a kidney transplant.”

Laser rifles with power packs are being readied to disable optical and infrared systems, but they are also being considered to flash-blind people. The temporary damage may be as slight as a centervision blind spot, similar to what happens when you see a flashbulb go off, or it could be significant. “Any system that intentionally blinds would be considered maiming,” says John Alexander, “and I’m confident we would not do that as a primary function of the weapon.”

A decade ago, the Congressional Clearinghouse of the Future chaired by then-Senator Albert Gore, Jr. drafted a report titled Future Agenda, which considered the eventual need for controls on offensive microwave weapons, described as “‘force fields’ which have great destructive power.” A section of the November 1982 report added that “the distant future may bring totally new weapons of broad scale destruction,” including “new electronic devices such as high-energy directed beams, and mind-control mechanisms. Whether or not these weapons could or should be developed and the means of defense against them in the event of enemy deployment may be subject to debate in the coming years.”

For example, it has long been known that certain sound frequencies have definite effects on the human body, depending upon their level of intensity. Infrasound is a powerful, ultra-low-frequency acoustic wave that can re-create the effects of seasickness; the French are credited with its original development for riot-control applications. According to military consultant Janet Morris, “There is also some research in the classified realm about what frequencies affect what organs.”

At a higher frequency level, a targetable device can potentially hit someone with the force of a baseball right between the eyes – or even crumble masonry. Sound could be utilized like a controllable earthquake, to shake people out of buildings or tunnels. The Russians are said to be testing a sound-based system which intensifies the effect of an automobile backfire a thousandfold.

Last July, an article in the monthly periodical Defense Electronics described a series of secret meetings held last March in suburban Northern Virginia between U.S. intelligence officials and a group of Russian scientists. They were talking, the article maintained, “about the Russians’ decade-long research on a computerized acoustic device allegedly capable of implanting thoughts in a person’s mind without that person being aware of the source of the thought.” The FBI was apparently considering using the Russian device – dubbed “acoustic psycho-correction” – on David Koresh, sending in the voice of God (or, alternatively, of the cult leader’s mother) in an effort to get the Branch Davidians to emerge. But the Russian scientists allegedly refused “to promise zero risk.”

When the NIJ’s David Boyd was asked recently whether any non-lethal weapons were considered for use in Waco, he responded: “I have to answer that very carefully. The fairest answer is, none were suitable.” Another source says that the FBI had discussions about piping thorazine into Koresh’s domain, mixed with dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) to absorb the tranquilizer rapidly through the skin of the Branch Davidians.

Considering the ensuing conflagration in Waco that killed more than 80 people, would mind/behavior control have been justified in retrospect? Chris and Janet Morris would say yes. The Morris couple, coauthors of about 30 nonfiction and fiction books (the sci-fi works are generally under pseudonyms), are also Senior Fellows and Research Directors for the U.S. Global Strategy Council, a Washington think tank under the auspices of ex-CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Ray Cline. Describing the Russians’ “acoustic psycho-correction” device, Janet concedes that “it’s potentially scary stuff. What we’d like to have are some open hearings leading to an international set of conventions constraining inappropriate use of this and other non-lethal methods.” At the same time, the Morrises are seeking a National Security Council-level decision advocating nonlethal weapons for international and domestic control of violence.

There is no doubt that the Justice Department is looking for a piece of the action. As the NIJ’s Boyd, himself a 20-year Army veteran, emphasized to the conventioneers at Johns Hopkins, “Police today still have the same choices Wyatt Earp had 100 years ago: talk a prisoner into cooperating, beat him into submission, or shoot him.” According to Boyd, recently a working group was formed to take a deeper look at non-lethal technologies among the NIJ, FBI, Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, National Academy of Sciences and National Governor’s Association, with an advisory panel including ex-FBI/CIA Director William Webster and Admiral Paul Yost.

None of the labs will say how much they’re spending on non-lethal weapons development. John Alexander argues that disclosing program details would invite other nations to develop counter measures.

Ironically, one advocate for an end to secrecy is Edward Teller, now 85, who came to the November conference sporting black boots, a blue suit, and a wooden cane almost as tall as he is. The ex-director of Lawrence Livermore Lab’s vision of non-lethality foresees small nuclear bombs with the explosive power of 100 tons of TNT, which could be strategically placed across say, North Korea to wipe out its infrastructure. Civilians would receive advance warning so they could evacuate the area. “A plan of this kind could work without a single casualty,”‘ Teller remarked.

Meantime, the conference seems to have sparked momentum. In March, the Army plans to appoint a senior advisory group to guide non-lethal weapons development and draft a master plan detailing future doctrine, training, and material issues. Whether the future might determine if somebody’s microbe can outwit somebody else’s microwave – and maybe offer us mutations of Strangelove or Pavlov – we may find out sooner than you can say Holy Sticky Foam.