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Report Calls for Development of Nonlethal Weapons

December 2002

By Kerry Boyd

The U.S. military should place a higher priority on developing and deploying so-called nonlethal weapons, the private National Research Council (NRC) concluded in an unclassified November report to the Pentagon. The council is part of the National Academy of Sciences, which provides services to the government.

Types of nonlethal weapons vary widely but can include chemical calmatives and malodorants intended to control or disperse crowds. Other potential nonlethal weapons listed in the report include “high-power microwave” to stop vehicles and vessels, “solid-state lasers,” and “rapidly deployable marine barrier systems.” The report recommended the armed forces increase research into several types of nonlethal weapons, which it said could provide useful tools to U.S. forces engaged in peacekeeping and urban conflicts, as well as help the Navy protect ports and ships.

The report, which was delivered to the Navy’s Office of Naval Research and the Department of Defense’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD), raised concerns among some arms control analysts that efforts to develop nonlethal weapons might violate the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The CWC does not prohibit “riot control agents,” defined as chemicals that “can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure,” although it bans the use of such agents in warfare. The NRC report mentions calmatives and malodorants as potential tools for the military if “developed and applied in accordance with U.S. treaty obligations in the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

Another concern is that the weapons might be lethal in some cases. The JNLWD often describes such weapons as “less than lethal” rather than nonlethal. Concerns over lethality grew in October when Russian forces killed more than 100 people when they used an opiate-based gas to overcome Chechen militants holding hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater. (See ACT, November 2002.)

Despite recommending increased nonlethal weapons development, the report notes some potential obstacles to further integrating nonlethal weapons into military use, including a poor understanding of the weapons’ “effects and effectiveness” and “perceived treaty constraints.” The Army conducted research and development of nonlethal weapons for “many years” until the early 1990s when the United States signed the CWC, according to the report. “That program has not been started up again, in spite of legal interpretations of the treaty indicating that it does not preclude such work or the employment of such agents in specified and increasingly important military situations, such as civilian crowd control in peacekeeping or humanitarian relief operations,” the report states.