Report urges Navy and Marines to develop nonlethal weapons

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Development of nonlethal weapons such as bad smelling chemicals to control crowds or psychological methods to calm them, energy beams to stop vehicles and underwater barrier systems should be given a high priority by the Navy and Marine Corps, the National Research Council recommended Monday.

"In particular, nonlethal weapons are an additional way to provide greater security for military bases and protect our security," said Miriam E. John of Sandia National Laboratories, chair of the committee that prepared the report.

The recommendation comes just over a week after about 120 captives died when Russian forces pumped incapacitating gas into a theater where about 40 Chechen separatists had taken more than 750 people hostage. Russian officials said the gas was not supposed to cause deaths.

The goal of nonlethal weapons is to incapacitate people or equipment while minimizing unintended fatalities and damage, the Research Council said.

"What we're saying is that we're putting our soldiers in harm's way, doing humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, without the tools to deal with these large crowds that can turn on them in a minute," John said in a telephone interview.

She said calming methods that would have a psychological impact on people -- perhaps using music or speaking to crowds appropriately in their language -- have not been well studied.

As for using chemicals to calm crowds, she said international treaties are complicated. "The lawyers have got to get together on this. There is so much latitude for interpretation, it needs a very, very careful look."

The report noted that while chemicals that have a physical effect, such as putting people to sleep, may be banned under treaties, materials that have a psychological impact, calming people down, may be legal.

'Terribly irresponsible'

Marine Capt. Shawn Turner, spokesman for the military's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, said he has not yet seen a copy of the study and could not comment on it.

Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project, a chemical and biological weapons monitoring group that is the chief critic of nonlethal weapons programs, called the council's report "terribly, terribly irresponsible."

"The panel's findings will be used by the Pentagon to redouble their chemical weapons development efforts with potentially disastrous results for arms control," he said. "Other countries will follow suit and controls on chemical weapons could quickly destabilize."

The armed services have operated a joint nonlethal research program since 1996 and the committee urged that it be sped up.

The study was done after the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, although it was requested before then, John said. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed when a dinghy loaded with explosives rammed the destroyer as it was refueling in Aden.

Taking that into account, the report stressed the need to accelerate research into barrier and entanglement systems.

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