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The San Francisco Chronicle

Nonlethal Weapons Pushed By Research Group / As Protesters In Vieques Learned Tear Gas Is A Nonlethal Weapon That Can Be Extremely Unpleasant

Keay Davidson

November 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved. 

The U.S. military needs to hasten funding and development of nonlethal weapons, including chemicals that could be used to calm or control crowds who might threaten U.S. bases abroad, according to a report by the National Research Council.

The report released Monday drew a harsh reaction from peace activists, especially in light of the unintended civilian casualties last week in Moscow, where Russian soldiers used a sleep-inducing gas against Chechen hostage-takers in a Moscow theater. The gas killed many civilians in the theater, especially the very young and the elderly.

Gases and other "nonlethal weapons are an additional way to provide greater security for military bases and protect our forces," said Miriam E. John, vice president of Sandia National Laboratories's California branch in Livermore. She chaired the committee that wrote the report.

Especially worthwhile would be the development of "calmative" gases that can calm large groups, or "malodorant" -- foul smelling - - gases that can repel them, says the report, titled "An Assessment of Nonlethal Weapons Science and Technology."

The report also urges the military to beef up its development of other so-called nonlethal weapons, which would "incapacitate people or materiel while minimizing unintended death and damage."

These include "a vehicle-mounted system that uses heat produced by high-power microwaves to stop vehicles and vessels" without harming the occupants, and robotic vehicles and sensors that can track potential enemy threats.

The NRC is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering, which advise Congress on science and technology.

The report's conclusions are intended for perusal by the military in general, although the report itself was developed by an NRC branch with ties to Navy and Marine Corps operations.

Peace activists attacked the report as unwise and ill-timed, particularly in the aftermath of the Moscow tragedy.

"They're talking about upgrading a whole new piece of the military-industrial complex," charged Andrew Lichterman, a spokesman for Oakland-based Western States Legal Foundation, one of the leading peace groups in the western United States. "We're not having the national debate we need about what these massive military forces are for."

The NRC report is "terribly, terribly irresponsible" and biased by its ties to the military, said Edward Hammond, head of The Sunshine Project. The Austin, Texas-based group has critiqued U.S. weapons developments including so-called nonlethal technologies.

The Pentagon agency charged with developing nonlethal weapons is the six-year-old Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD). That agency "got what it wanted in the (NRC) study: a green light to continue development of gas weapons," Hammond charged.

In the late 20th century, U.S. military futurists began advocating research and development of such nonlethal weapons to minimize civilian and enemy casualties in wartime. On Congressional order, the U.S. Defense Department responded in 1996 by creating the JNLWD as a branch of the U.S. Marine Corps.

However, the Navy "has made little investment in nonlethal weapons science and technology," complained the NRC report. The report was sponsored by two of the agencies that would benefit from increased funding: the Directorate and the Office of Naval Research.

In a phone interview, John, a chemist by training, said the directorate spends roughly $30 million a year. So far it has spent its money largely on low-tech nonlethal devices such as rubber bullets and "sticky foam," which can bog down crowds.

Although the report doesn't recommend a specific amount of increased spending for R&D on nonlethal weapons, John said the military should consider doubling the amount -- especially on higher- tech weapons such as the calming or smelly gases.

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