Problems with NLS

  • NLS  has great potential to support peace. However, if the technology  is poorly designed or the devices are used inappropriately it can cause substantial harm.

In recent years, academic Nonlethal Security centres (usually termed Non-Lethal Weapons (NLW) centres) have focused  much of their research on the problems associated with nonlethal security. This focus is perhaps intended to balance the somewhat robust approach to these devices adopted by some of the manufacturers and by some of the agencies involved in using NLS, both military and police.

A useful analysis of problems with NLS (written in 2003 but still partly current) is the

Bradford Non-Lethal Weapons Research Project

Research Report No. 4

Problems with current devices

When the idea of ‘nonlethal weapons’ began to become widespread (about the 1970s) there was an initial flush of enthusiasm (as often happens with new technology). Inevitably potential problems began to emerge.

For example, they might:

  •                      when used inappropriately be lethal
  •                      not be as effective as the lethal technologies they oppose
  •                    not deter ruthless opponents
  •                      be used to extend rather than replace conventional armaments
  •                     be used to subdue civilian populations
  •                      because they do not kill people not ‘teach the enemy a lesson’
  •                    prolong wars unnecessarily and cause more suffering than conventional  weapons would have done.
  •                      distract from the aim of eliminating war altogether
  •                     result in a stalemate
  •                     replace one kind of violence with another.

All these concerns are legitimate. Military agencies now developing nonlethal security are very aware of them. Here are some suggestions for addressing the problems:

  •          when used inappropriately be lethal

This will require better design and good training.

  •          not as effective as the lethal technologies they oppose

This is a major concern. Initially, non-lethal warfare might be a luxury only for the powerful to be used in situations where they had overwhelming force and no risk of injury.

  •         not deter ruthless opponents

The possibility of being ‘immobilised’ might not seem as much of a threat as of being killed and fanatical combatants might well take that risk. If it became known that surrender would result in much lesser penalties than for resistance (ie an opponent that had to be immobilised would be fined and incarcerated rather than briefly detained) effective nonlethal security could be a substantial deterrent.

  •         be used to extend rather than replace conventional armaments

At present this is a very valid concern. At least one military nonlethal agency has stated explicitly that nonlethal weapons will never replace lethal force. There will of course be some gain if death and injury in warfare is reduced but the ultimate aim must be to eliminate all damage.

  •          be used to subdue civilian populations

Unfortunately, nonlethal devices have from time to time been employed to oppress civilians. These abuses include unnecessarily violent crowd control and torture. The abuses need to be eradicated, but they are not a reason for rejecting the technology as a whole.

  •          because they do not kill people not ‘teach the enemy a lesson’

In some situations it will be appropriate to penalise aggressors. However, this should not include execution. Many soldiers involved in aggressive combat are not there from personal choice. They may profoundly disagree with the activity but have been unwillingly conscripted by their political leaders. To be killed in such a situation is profoundly unjust.

  •         prolong wars unnecessarily and cause more suffering than conventional weapons

At present we could envisage situations where a quick lethal intervention might quickly restore peace and justice, while nonlethal action might allow injustice to persist for years. This kind of argument was employed in the invasion of Iraq but the result was hundreds of thousands of casualties and ongoing conflict. If there had been a better post invasion strategy there might have been a happier outcome, but any lethal conflict is risky.

  •          distract from the aim of eliminating war altogether

The initial objective of nonlethal security is to reduce the damage of war. It could though pave the way to lasting peace. If no one is killed or injured it becomes much easier to negotiate peace and to establish a less violent culture.

  •          result in a stalemate

Nonlethal resolution of a conflict might take longer than a quick lethal war, but delay is better than death and time will usually reveal a way to resolve and conciliate.

  •          replace one kind of violence with another

Some peace activist have argued that nonlethal security may just allow state owned violence and oppression to continue, even if no-one is ‘physically’ killed or injured. The sole aim, they say, should be to eliminate all violence. In the long run this is a worthy objective but the realities of human biology and culture dictate that groups of humans will continue to attempt lethal violence on other humans in the immediate future. If you are dead you have no chance of achieving justice. While you live the opportunity for change remains.