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Non-lethal Weapons in Twenty-First-Century Warfare
By John B. Alexander
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 John B. Alexander
All rights reserved.
WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?
Nothing is harder than armed struggle.
— Sun Tzu (Chou Dynasty)
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the notion of "non-lethal warfare" has been hotly debated in military circles. The shift from bipolar confrontation, in which national survival was the driving force, to a geopolitically complex world requiring regional stability and engendering transient, pragmatic relationships requires us to rethink the whole notion of national security.
In the bygone era of the Cold War, Western military forces were structured to fight the most dreaded of all battles: war in Central Europe. Our national security policy, articulated in National Security Directive NSC-68, was containment and deterrence. It was oriented solely on countering the Soviets. That thinking was dominated by the strategic triad of nuclear weapons systems: long-range, stealthy bombers; precision-targeted, underground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles; and highly survivable submarines armed with sea-launched ballistic missiles. These forces were to hold the Soviet empire in check and ensure our survival through a policy known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD meant that if a nuclear war erupted, we would destroy each other, and probably the world. To work, it depended on rational adversaries who would not risk total destruction of civilization as we know it.
However, plans had been drafted on both sides that could allow a war of massive forces without crossing the nuclear threshold. Therefore, in addition to these strategic forces, the United States and its NATO allies developed and maintained large conventional military forces comprised of modern ships, airplanes, tanks, and artillery. The driving factor was to have sufficient forces to meet a Russian and Warsaw Pact invasion head-on, stop their advance, and be able to restore the boundaries to their pre-war state. Since we always assumed the Soviets were developing new and better fighting systems, our development efforts were designed to meet threats twenty years down the road.
The Soviets were known to rely heavily on armored forces; thus, their tanks were of keen interest to us. In the early 1980s studies were conducted and reports published stating that there was a significant "armor gap" between the West and the Soviets. Urgent action was required, and a major armor/anti-armor initiative was undertaken. While we knew their new T-82 was being fielded but didn't know its characteristics, we hypothesized about the next generations, dubbed Future Soviet Tank (FST) I and II, respectively. Shortly after I retired from the army in 1988, there was even talk about FST-III. It was the perceived high-tech, future Soviet threat that was used to justify the development of most new systems. That was the focus and raison d'être of all military research and development.
We structured our military forces assuming that if we could defeat the Soviets in Central Europe, any other military engagement could be considered a lesser-included case. That means our forces would be able to defeat any other adversary. Of course, the American experience in Vietnam unequivocally demonstrated the problems with that thinking. Heavy forces could not fight well in jungles and were seasonally restricted in the rice paddies. Air and sea power provided extensive firepower but couldn't occupy and hold the territory. Politically (but not militarily) defeated, we abandoned Vietnam. The psychological impact of our experience in Southeast Asia would shape the military leadership for decades to come. Most of all, the military leadership wanted troops to be employed only when clear military objectives could be established, and the support of both the people and elected political officials was firmly behind them.
During the drawdown and restructuring that followed, high-technology weapons continued to be developed. Their worth was undeniably proven in 1991 during Desert Storm with the rapid and devastating defeat of the Iraqi armored and air forces. In the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli troops demonstrated that "what could be seen could be hit." Now we have confirmed "What could be hit could be killed," and "We owned the night." With our advanced sensor systems, including satellites, reconnaissance aircraft, and ground-based systems, we could find any exposed target, strike it, and kill it, day or night. Precision-guided munitions decimated tanks and other armored vehicles at a phenomenal rate.
In the eight years Iraq fought ground battles with Iran, troops learned they were safe if they stayed in tanks. In the first two to three days of Desert Storm, they learned they were safe only if they did not stay in the armored vehicles. UN air supremacy was established within a few hours of the onset of the operation. Their ground-based air defenses obliterated, the Iraqi Air Force learned instantly not to challenge the far superior UN fighters. Similarly, the state-of-the-art bunkers they possessed for their aircraft were quickly destroyed by our pinpoint penetrating munitions. The survivors were a few brave souls who dashed to the relative safety of their old archenemy, Iran.
The recent development of military non-lethal concepts arose from very lethal roots. While law enforcement has always been charged with using the minimum force necessary to restrain assailants, the post-Vietnam military embraced the concepts of overmatching enemy weapons and the use of overwhelming force. "Overmatching" meant that, system for system, we could shoot farther and more accurately than any adversary. Overwhelming force indicated that we did not believe in our age-old principle of "fighting fair" — at least not when it came to war.
When I went to Los Alamos National Laboratory in August of 1988, the Soviets were still our predominant adversary. Although we were working on weapons technologies that would temporarily disable any enemy system, the rationale was that it would be easier to disable that system than to kill it. The Pentagon had established an Office of Strategic Competitiveness under the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Headed by Dan Goure, a political-military affairs expert and son of a famed Sovietologist, the office was determined to learn how we could defeat the Soviet military asymmetrically. That meant employing methods in which we did not have to go head-to-head with their formidable armored forces.
While military leaders always felt we would eventually win any war — including Central Europe — they knew our casualty rates would be substantial. They also had to consider the problems associated with bringing our force to bear against an enemy that planned to advance 50-100 kilometers each day. The Soviet forces planned to establish and maintain a ferocious tempo of attack. The fast-moving, heavily armored forces would be very difficult to stop. The United States concluded that we would "trade space for time." That meant we would conduct a retrograde action while moving our troops to their prepositioned equipment. Then we would counterattack and restore the boundaries. Our German allies did not like the idea of trading space. They pointed out that it was their "space" we were willing to trade.
Defending Central Europe presented tremendous logistical problems. The Soviets, we believed, would come in such great numbers that even superior technology would have problems killing the multitude of tanks that would be thrown at our front lines. Their doctrine called for wave after wave of armored forces, supported by an incredible amount of artillery, to keep up constant, unrelenting pressure. Everyone on the NATO side knew it would be a tough fight — one none of them wanted to engage in.
It was in this environment that I first started developing concepts for non-lethal weapons. The initial ideas were focused on an established concept: breaking threat tempo. That meant if we could delay the Soviet reinforcements as deeply in their territory as possible, it would provide time for NATO forces to get troops and ammunition forward in time to destroy the forward-deployed Soviet military. The concept was in sync with the newly developed concept of Follow-on-Forces Attack, or FOFA, as it was known. The only difference was that instead of destroying the enemy forces, the weapons I proposed would temporarily delay their arrival at the front. Short delays deep in enemy territory would result in a cascading effect, thus producing major influence on the battlefield. Somewhat ironically, rather than being "non-lethal," the ultimate desired effect of these weapons was to increase the kill ratio in the forward battle area.
An additional issue was the population density of Europe. Cities large and small cover much of the landscape. From World War II engagements, we knew and understood the problems of fighting in cities. Going house to house, it is a very nasty battle. Since the United States was going to move light infantry into the theater, the only place it could be expected to survive a brutal armored onslaught was in difficult terrain or in cities. As I studied the problem, I was surprised to find a document written nearly twenty years earlier by Joseph Coates of the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA). It was titled Nonlethal and Nondestructive Combat in Cities Overseas and addressed many of the same ideas and technologies that were beginning to form the heart of the current non-lethal weapons concepts. A problem at the time Coates wrote his thesis was that the technologies he proposed were not sufficiently mature to offer practical weapons applications.
Over the next few years, the United States and its allies engaged in operations that would prove instrumental in the evolution of non-lethal weapons and concepts. We had already gone after Manuel Noriega in Panama with Operation Just Cause. Then we were involved in several operations-other than-war, including Somalia, Haiti, Cuba, and, most recently, Bosnia. These operations provided commanders with the experience necessary to begin to formulate requirements for new non-lethal systems.
For many, the very words non-lethal weapons represent an oxymoron. Is not the destruction of your adversary the objective of war? While controversial, the answer to that question is, "Not really." In our fictionalized versions of war, we tend to concentrate on the total destruction of any group of people on whom we have bestowed the title of enemy. This was epitomized in the 1996 hit movie Independence Day. In the film, the U.S. President asked the alien invaders if accommodations could be made. "What do you want us to do?" asked the president. The movie alien response was "Die!" This exchange serves to show how deeply ingrained in popular consciousness the concept of physical destruction of an enemy has become.
The real objective of war, however, is the imposition of will. Getting an adversary to do as you dictate, not their physical demise, is the desired outcome. The Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz called war "an extension of diplomacy by other means. Imposition of will, not physical destruction, is the appropriate measure of success." In fact, in the long run, physical destruction and unwarranted fatalities may be counterproductive to the goals of most advanced civilizations. There are two distinct issues that come into play in termination of conflict. One is the rebuilding that is required upon the end of hostilities. Recent history has shown that it is usually the victor who bears the heavier financial burden. The domestic economies that made the transition to support a war effort must be restructured to meet peacetime requirements. Additionally, the victors often feel compelled to assist the vanquished in reestablishing internal economic and political stability. The results of such efforts are best seen in the post — World War II support rendered to both Germany and Japan. From abject devastation, in a few short decades, they have emerged as major world powers.
The second issue relates to holding grudges. Throughout the world, there are many societies that have both large families and long memories. While physically destroying an enemy in battle may preclude future attacks in the short term, it does not prevent later retaliation. Today the world is replete with conflicts based on old animosities, events that transpired decades, even centuries ago.
The events of recent years in the Balkans and the southern states of the former Soviet Union demonstrate that emotions can be repressed by force for long periods of time. There can even be a semblance of integration and civility among the factions involved. Yet once the physical repression is relaxed, the conflicts resume. Even if a majority of the personally aggrieved parties have died off, new generations, imbued by the stories of past atrocities, seem fully prepared to take up the cause as their own.
It does not take large numbers of casualties to generate enduring hatred. Consider an ambush that occurred in the Middle East in which the prophet Ali ibn Abi Talib and about two dozen followers were murdered. That incident happened thirteen centuries ago in A.D. 661, and led to the split between the Sunni and Shiite Moslems. The two sects have been engaged in conflicts, both philosophical and physical, ever since.
The violent nature of most conflicts inevitably leads to violations of established military protocols and ethical constraints. The more intimately involved in combat the individual becomes, either physically or emotionally, the more likely it is for atrocities to occur. On the ground, hostilities can easily get up close and very personal. All military forces, no matter how professional they consider themselves to be, have committed unauthorized acts of extreme violence. U.S. forces in Vietnam were no exception. Most Americans were shocked to learn about the involvement of U.S. Army troops in the My Lai Massacre. In that incident, young American soldiers, mostly draftees, willfully executed 347 unarmed men, women, and children. Herded into the ditch by the infantry platoon commanded by Lieutenant William Calley, the villagers were machine-gunned to death at point-blank range. The reason? Some of the soldiers' buddies had recently been killed in fighting in that area. Professional soldiers or not, combat evokes passion. Passion can get out of control, and frequently does. Retribution seems justified. The cycle continues.
Civilians around the world are being taught that retribution is acceptable, and sometimes desirable. It is a prevalent theme in novels, movies, and television. Justified violence has become a hallmark in Hollywood films, and is employed to gain the emotional support of the audience for acts that the hero is about to commit, albeit reluctantly. To make sure acts appear more acceptable and less self-serving, bad things happen to family members or close friends of the hero. The hero, his or her family killed or threatened, then sets about "righting wrongs" or protecting himself or herself and others. Any amount of force is acceptable, usually the more the better, from an audience perspective. Superstars such as Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry), Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon and Ransom), Wesley Snipes (Passenger 57), Steven Seagal (Under Siege and Above the Law), Arnold Schwarzenegger (True Lies), and Sylvester Stallone (Rambo) become the personification of revenge. They are rewarded by committed movie audiences that demand further involvement in retribution. The problem is that, while these actors always appear to solve one problem by the end of the movie, in real life other problems continue to emerge.
Excerpted from Future War by John B. Alexander. Copyright © 1999 John B. Alexander. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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