Saturday, March 17, 2012

6 August 2010 – The peculiar world of non-lethal weapons, or Love is a Battlefield


Every now and again, the topic of non-lethal weapons pops up in the popular media.  It came around again last week, when it was revealed that the US military had withdrawn the Active Denial System, or ADS, from service in Afghanistan [see].  The ADS, a non-lethal anti-personnel device lovingly dubbed “the pain ray”, causes severe (although supposedly non-damaging) discomfort through the use of finely-tuned microwaves to heat the outer layer of the skin.  It was developed in an attempt to find a means of dispersing crowds of non-combatants at ranges of several hundreds of metres, without having to resort to other “non-lethal” technologies that are either relatively easy to counter (e.g., capsaicin or “pepper” spray, and tear gas), or that occasionally have unpleasant and potentially life-threatening side effects (e.g., baton rounds, “beanbag” rounds, and rubber bullets).

All manner of “non-lethal” and “less-than-lethal” weapons systems have been explored over the years, ranging from anti-mobility devices (e.g. anti-traction compounds and electrical or plasma vehicle immobilization systems) to anti-material options (e.g., depolymerization agents that attack rubber, genetically engineered bacteria designed to consume oil and lubricants) and anti-personnel systems (e.g. noise-making devices, blinding lasers, and “sticky foams”).  While often bizarre, where not constrained by law (blinding lasers, for example, are restricted by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which is not universally subscribed), these are largely noncontroversial.  Where controversy tends to erupt is when the use of chemicals against humans enters the picture.

The subject came to the fore with a vengeance in October 2002, when a mixture of derivatives of Fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid, was used to incapacitate both the forty-odd jihadist terrorists who had taken control of the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, and the hundreds of hostages that the terrorists were holding.  After introducing the agent into the theatre’s ventilation system, Russian special forces stormed the theatre.  The operation resulted in 17% fatalities for the hostages and 100% fatalities for the terrorists.  Most of the hostages who died perished as a result of respiratory failure resulting from overdose.  While nongovernmental organizations roundly condemned the use of a chemical incapacitant, the operation was praised by world leaders (including then-PM Chretien), and no complaints of a contravention of the CWC were ever levied against the Russian Federation at the OPCW.

The Convention’s prohibitions are designed to deal primarily with chemical warfare agents, and are a little fuzzy where chemical incapacitants are concerned.  The Convention defines “toxic chemicals” as any chemical, regardless of origin, which through “chemical action on life processes” can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals (CWC, Article II, para 2); and prohibits the “development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons”, which are themselves defined as “toxic chemicals…except where intended for purposes not prohibited by the Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes (CWC, Article I, para 1; and Article II, para 1).  Pursuant to para 9 of Article II, “purposes not prohibited” includes “law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes.”  In other words, the use of toxic chemicals for law enforcement purposes is permitted under the Convention.  This is obviously intentional; otherwise, both tear gas and execution by lethal injection would be illegal.

Things get even murkier when questions of biochemistry enter the picture.  What happens, for example, if someone develops a chemical capable of altering human behaviour - but not through “chemical action on life processes”?  Or, perhaps, one which can do so, but without any possibility of causing “death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm”?  Such things have long been thought of.  The former category includes “malodorants”, classes of chemicals that are designed to smell so bad that they provoke instantaneous revulsion and vomiting, and the only possible reaction is flight.  Compounds that have been investigated include isovaleric acid (described as producing a “sweaty, putrid swine odour, reminiscent of rancid cheese”); skatoles (“putrid, fecal”); n-caproic acid (“sharp, sour, rancid” and smelling “of goat”); and t-butyl mercaptan (“skunk, sulphurous”).  Operationally, these compounds have proven less than ideal, due largely to differences in how different human ethnic groups react, based on cultural differences, to different arrays of odours.  Moreover, the human olfactory response is not sufficiently understood to determine with confidence whether the reaction to such compounds is psychological, physiological, or biochemical.  Only in the latter case would such compounds be considered “toxic chemicals” under the CWC definition.

The question of bioactive compounds that do not cause death, incapacitation or permanent harm is even more peculiar.  A few years ago, the “Sunshine Project” - a website devoted to “exposing” government military programmes in the biological and chemical arenas - published details of some proposals for the investigation of non-lethal chemical weaponry by the Wright Laboratory at Paterson Air Force Base in the US (the proposals date from 1994, three years before the entry-into-force of the CWC).  Among many other proposals were the investigation of chemical compounds that could cause enemy soldiers to attract wasps, hornets and other harassing insects; that would make personnel uncomfortably sensitive to sunlight; that would make soldiers’ breath smell so bad that they would be unable to stand each other’s company; and perhaps most bizarrely, chemicals that would make enemy personnel “hopelessly physically attractive” to each other, thus destroying unit morale and cohesion (an option, according to the report, that was deemed “distasteful”).

As some of you may recall, this disclosure naturally resulted in a brief spate of headlines about the US military’s alleged search for a “Sex Bomb” [see here,2933,146087,00.html for a contemporary example], along with, inevitably, reverent nods in the direction of Tom Jones.

From the perspective of the CWC, it is not clear whether chemical agents inducing insect attraction, chronic halitosis, light sensitivity or uncontrollable amorousness would meet the definition of “toxic chemicals” because, while they obviously produce “chemical action on life processes”, it is not clear that that action is likely to lead to “death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm”.  Happily for the Convention, and for the gravitas of debates in the Executive Council and the Conference of States Parties (which are often sufficiently surreal without introducing discussions, in six official languages, of bad breath, insect infestations, chemically-induced sunburn, and hyper-empowered hanky-panky on the front lines), none of the suggestions offered by the Wright Laboratory appears to ever have made it off the drawing board.

We may all be grateful for this fact.  One can only imagine how the recent G8 protests in Toronto might have turned out if the Peel Regional Police had had any of these nefarious compounds on hand.

The Sunshine Project, sadly, suspended operations in 2008, but its website is still available for archival purposes [].  The USAF paper in question can be found under the “non-lethal” tab on the homepage.



P.S.  If you're interested in what the Chemical Weapons Convention says, or more importantly does not say, about chemical incapacitants, you might be interested in this paper:

Author(s): Neill, D.A.
Corporate author(s): Defence R&D Canada - Center for Operational Research and Analysis, Ottawa ONT (CAN);Department of National Defence, Ottawa ONT (CAN) Assistant Deputy Minister (Policy)

Abstract: In October 2002, Russian Special Forces employed an incapacitating chemical agent to rescue hundreds of hostages held by Chechen terrorists in the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow. Since that time, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and a plethora of academics and non-governmental organizations have attempted to address the ambiguity in the Convention governing the circumstances under which riot control and incapacitating chemical agents may legally be used. This report examines this question and concludes that riot control agents may be used domestically; that, subject to certain key constraints, riot control agents may be employed on operations abroad; that incapacitating chemical agents should only be used for law enforcement purposes within a state’s legal jurisdiction; that transparency in this area could be enhanced through voluntary declarations concerning incapacitating chemical agents; and that like-minded States Parties may consider it in their interest to develop and promulgate a shared understanding of what, in their view, constitutes legitimate versus illegitimate use of these agents.