Tag: non-lethal weapons

Cyber Nerd Blogging: Neuroscience, Conflict and Security

Antoine Bousquet has a fascinating post at Disorder of Things on developments in neuroscience and how they are being used by militaries to 1) enhance their own soldiers and 2) degrade the abilities of their opponents. The post is in response to a report by The Royal Society on Neuroscience, Conflict and Security which outlines these developments, speculates on the future and the ethical implications of these developments.

As Bousquet notes, it’s some pretty hairy stuff:

Yet perhaps the most potentially consequential developments will be found in the area of neural interfacing and its efforts to bring the human nervous system and computing machines under a single informational architecture. The report’s authors note here the benefits that accrue from this research to the disabled in terms of improvements to the range of physical and social interactions available to them through a variety of neurally controlled prosthetic extensions. While this is indeed the case, there is a particular irony to the fact that the war mutilated (which the Afghan and Iraq conflicts have produced in abundance – according to one estimate, over 180,000 US veterans from these conflicts are on disability benefits) have become one of the main testing grounds for technologies that may in the future do much more than restore lost capabilities. Among one of the most striking suggestions is that:

electrode arrays implanted in the nervous system could provide a connection between the nervous system of an able-bodied individual and a specific hardware or software system. Since the human brain can process images, such as targets, much faster than the subject is consciously aware, a neurally interfaced weapons systems could provide significant advantages over other system control methods in terms of speed and accuracy. (p.40)

In other words, human brains may be harnessed within fire control systems to perform cognitive tasks before these even become conscious to them. Aside from the huge ethical and legal issues that it would raise, one cannot but observe that under such a scheme the functional distinction between human operator and machine seems to collapse entirely with the evaporation of any pretense of individual volition.

Noting scientific developments aimed at altering the sensory perception of enemies on the battlefield, Bousquet concludes: “The holy grail of military neuroscience is therefore nothing less than the ability to directly hack into and reprogram a target’s perceptions and beliefs, doing away even with the need for kinetic force. So that when neural warfare does truly arrive, we may not even know it.”

A couple of thoughts:

First, The Royal Society Report is interesting for its inclusion of a relatively decent overview of the applicable law that would apply to such weapons. Ken Anderson at Lawfare disagrees – suggesting that “The legal and ethical issues are of course legion and barely explored.” However, considering the report is relatively brief, the legal and ethical section does proportionally take up a large chunk of it. in addition, the report includes no less than four recommendations for suggesting improvements to the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention regimes. Interestingly, they do not suggest any improvements for law of war/IHL as opposed to arms control. I find this surprising to a certain extent. While there are principles that always apply to ALL weaponry (distinction, proportionality and necessity – and, of course, prohibition of unnecessary suffering), I would argue that neuro-non-leathal weapons are a definite grey area. (As The Royal Society report notes, altering someone’s sensory perception has radical implications for notions of responsibility in the prosecution of war crimes.)

Second, Bousquet’s last point is interesting in that it reflects the constant quest over the last century and a half to develop weapons that would end the need for the use of kinetic force. I’m presently reading P.D. Smith’s Doomsday Men a social history of the application of science to warfare and weapons of mass destruction which traces the development and logic behind such weapons that were supposed to be so terrible that they could never be used – or if used, would be so terrible as to inspire an end to warfare. This was the case for chemical/gas weapons and eventually the atomic bomb – the thought behind many of their creators that their mere possession would be enough to stop countries from fighting one another full-stop because the consequences would be so terrible.

As Smith demonstrates in his book, such a theory of non-use of weapons was a frequent theme of the science fiction literature of the time, particularly that of HG Wells:

The United States of America entered World War I under the slogan of ‘the war to end all wars’. Never has idealism been so badly used. From Hollis’ Godfrey’s The Man Who Ended War (1908) to H.G. Wells’s The World Set Free (1914), the idea of fighting a final battle to win universal peace had gripped readers in Europe and America. Wells’s novel even introduced the phrase ‘war that will end war’.
Once again, science played a vital role in these stories. A new figure emerged in pre-war fiction – the saviour scientist, a Promethean genius who uses his scientific knowledge to save his country and banish war forever. It is the ultimate victory for Science and Progress…

As James writes, these works of science fiction promoted the idea that “through revolutionary science and the actions of an idealistic scientist, war could be made a thing of the past.” In some works a terrible war is required to win the peace through science, but it is clear that in the view of many of these pre-War “science romance” novels (which would go on to inspire many of the future atomic scientists working on the nuclear bomb) that super weapons could stop war.

Should we then read neuro-weapons in this light – as part of the constant scientific quest to develop weapons which will end the need to fight?

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DoD’S ‘Bloodless’ Ray-Guns

The Economist reports on advances in non-lethal weaponry, emphasizing the latest line of research into electro-magnetic weapons:

BULLETS and bombs are so 20th-century. The wars of the 21st will be dominated by ray guns. That, at least, is the vision of a band of military technologists who are building weapons that work by zapping the enemy’s electronics, rather than blowing him to bits. The result could be conflict that is less bloody, yet more effective, than what is now seen as conventional battle…

The logical conclusion of all this is a so-called “human-safe” missile, which carries an electromagnetic gun instead of an explosive warhead. This gentle way of handling the enemy – stopping his speedboats, stalling his tanks—has surprising advantages. For example, it expands the range of targets that can be attacked. Some favourite tricks of modern warfare, such as building communications centres in hospitals, or protecting sites with civilian “human shields”, cease to be effective if it is simply the electronics of the equipment being attacked that are destroyed. Though disabling an aircraft’s avionics will obviously cause it to crash, in many other cases, no direct harm is done to people at all.

This rosy view assumes weapons would only affect (or be directed at) “the enemy” – the author is grievously blind to the civilian costs of messing with power grids. While it doesn’t “blow people to bits” (and is certainly a step up from demolishing concrete buildings in urban areas), sudden loss of electrical power can be deadly to civilians: depriving them of life-sustaining medical care, causing vehicular accidents, deaths from exposure to heat or cold and disease from the collapse of water and sewage systems.

Worse, the author(s?) is/are ill-versed in science fiction analogies.

Discussing the Active Denial System later in the piece (a ‘non-lethal’ weapon that roasts people with microwaves but leaves no permanent injury) the article compares such a weapon to a “ray-gun” and suggests that the decision to end its deployment in Afghanistan stemmed from public aversion to sci-fi ray guns. (Actually, the Pentagon, not known for caving to bleeding hearts at home, had decided for itself that a pain ray might not be the best way to win hearts and minds.)

Anyway: note the fallacy in the characterization of public opposition to “ray guns.” The “ray guns” of science fiction to which the authors refer – lethal energy weapons like the Star Wars “blaster,” or the Star Trek “phaser” (a non-lethal on certain settings) are designed to kill instantly or stun, not to inflict agonizing pain on the individual. (Though they can be used improperly to inflict severe burns on certain settings, they are not designed to be used this way intentionally nor are such uses typical. In fact, in the Star Trek: TNG universe, there are treaties against weapons designed to inflict superfluous suffering – sort of a 24th century version of the Hague Conventions.)

By contrast, the Active Denial System hardly fits the popular perception of a “ray-gun” at all. Indeed, it is designed not to incapacitate but to modify behavior through pain. It’s more analogous to the “neural neutralizer” or other torture devices that are depicted in the first two Star Trek series.

So to the extent that public opinion a) matters at all in weapons deployment and b) is primed by science fiction narratives (both are hypotheses not facts) I would guess that a useful first step is to understand both the weapons and the sci-fi.

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Security Forces Deployed Acoustic Cannon Against US Civilians


The G20 Summit is over, the protests of last Thursday and Friday have largely died down, as has the media coverage. The City of Pittsburgh reports 83 protesters arrested and nearly $50,000 of property damage within the city, mostly caused by a small number of protesters while the rest marched peacefully in a carnival atmosphere: environmental, anti-militarist and labor activists carrying the banner for social justice non-violently, as permitted by the US Constitution.

I’ve already criticized the protest tactics carried out by a minority of those protesting. Now a word about crowd control tactics deployed by police and National Guard units in the city. An interesting development is that riot police didn’t stop with conventional methods of crowd control such as arrests, intimidation with batons and tear gas, but also utilized a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) to disperse protesters during the conference.

The LRAD is among the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate’s menu of options for crowd control in stability and support operations or for use on the battlefield. It has been used a number of times to repel pirates from cruise ships. The device emits a high-pitched whine painful to human hearing. Allison Kilkenny has a decent description of what it meant for locals in Pittsburgh, plus video, here. This was the first use of this weapon within the US to prevent civilians from assembling in protest.

An American Technology Corp official touting his company’s new technology in the Daily Finance describes it like this:

“LRAD creates increased stand off and safety zones, supports resolution of uncertain situations, and potentially prevents the use of deadly force… We believe this is highly preferable to the real instances that happen almost every day around the world where officials use guns and other lethal and non-lethal weapons to disperse protesters.”

Note what is happening here: the claim by ATC that dispersing peaceful protesters is a legitimate activity, something every civilized government needs to be able to do, and it’s just a matter of what means will do the job at the least human cost. As I’ve written already, I have no respect for the tactics of those protesters who aimed to incite police violence through attacks on persons and property. Law enforcement has every right and responsibility to protect private property and the safety of delegates to a conference. But I also have no respect for a security sector that makes it its mission to break up peaceful protest, in violation of both human rights law and first amendment rights under the US Constitution; for companies who profit from it.

And the transfer of a weapon designed for military contexts abroad to US crowd control situations is worrying in other respects. For one thing, the effects of the weapon are not entirely benign: the LRAD can cause permanent hearing damage. But they can also be easily countered through the use of earplugs. It’s likely that most adversely affected by the use of such weapons in domestic contexts will be those in the vicinity, including children, who are not part of the formal protest or are unprepared for such assaults. Seasoned protesters will simply don earplugs along with bandanas in the future. For another thing, is this a harbinger of more “non-lethal” weapons to come in US crowd control operations? The Active Denial System, touted by the Pentagon as “A Revolutionary Non-Lethal Weapon for Today’s Battlefield” causes human beings to feel as if they are on fire. It won’t kill you – as long as you make haste out of its path. And you will, unless you’re a small child or elder being trampled by a panicked crowd. Even if the First Amendment didn’t apply (and it does) these things scare the *#@! out of me even in battlefield situations and have no business whatsoever being deployed on civilians.

John Robb writes at Global Guerillas about the securitization of protest and militarization of civilian police forces as a global phenomena: good stuff in the comments.

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Set Phaser to Torment

The Pentagon’s “less-than-lethal” weaponry is finally going mainstream. Though the Active Denial System (ADS) has been under development for years, 60 Minutes has finally reported on it as if it’s the newest thing around. (Click here to see the 10-minute segment from Sunday’s show.)

Not exactly a hand-held phaser, and it doesn’t painlessly knock you out. Instead it sends a wave of directed energy at a person or a crowd that vibrates the water molecules under the skin. This induces a feeling of being on fire. But unlike actual flamethrowers, the pain only lasts until you move out of the beam.

Pentagon officials frame this as a humanitarian weapon that will save lives by giving US troops something to blaze away with other than a gun. They particularly tout its use for riot control, an easy way to disperse crowds in stability and support ops.

Opponents have some concerns. Quoth various commenters on Crooks and Liars:

“So when we have 2 groups of demonstators facing off against each other, which group will be zapped? The side that agrees with the current administration or the side that opposes it? This looks like a potentially serious threat to free speech.”

“So the military is basically afraid of it’s own people is the moral of this story. The weapon won’t be used in REAL battles, but when it comes to protesters/crowd control it’s ok. So when does the US military officially take over complete control of the US in the form of a advertised coup?”

“A weapon like this is a clear infringement of our Constitutional rights to peacefully assemble for a redress of our grievances. It is unconstitutional. Period.”

A “humane” weapon? Frankly I think I’d rather be burnt to death in a space of three minutes than stuck in a “non-lethal” agonizer ray indefinitely, as might happen if I’m a small child being trampled in a panicked crowd. Although as a matter of fact, being basically a microwave beam, more likely it would eventually cook that small child inside out and kill her anyway.

Perhaps revisiting of the basic just war principles of discrimination, proportionality and unnecessary suffering might be in order here.

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