End of the riot act

Stun guns, heat beams and sonic weapons are no longer the stuff of science fiction.

Law enforcement agencies and the military are showing increasing interest in non-lethal weapons designed to immobilise criminals or enemy personnel without permanent ill-effect.

The police, in the UK at least, are interested in alternatives to carrying firearms routinely. The military are interested because of public aversion to casualties, especially as troops find themselves in non-war roles — such as acting as a buffer between rival factions in peacekeeping roles.

Extensive research is going on, especially in the US, on technologies ranging from lasers and electromagnetic darts to pepper guns.

Last October, police in Nottingham became the first in mainland Britain to go on routine patrol with sidearms. Nottinghamshire Police said this was necessary to arm officers to reassure residents in two violent areas of the city that they were combating gun crime.

Developments such as this caused the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) to ask Home Office scientists to identify alternative weapons that are not as dangerous as a gun but are more effective over a longer distance than CS gas spray or a baton. Since the introduction of CS sprays, the number of attacks against police officers has fallen dramatically, proving the potential of non-lethal weapons’ effectiveness.

Inspector Neil Haynes, a former assistant secretary on ACPO’s self-defence, arrest and restraint sub-committee, which is overseeing the project, says: ‘Faced with a man armed with a short-range weapon such as an axe, the present options are containment and negotiation. But there is another problem when people threaten to harm themselves, and time is always a factor.’

Home Office scientists from the Police Scientific Development Board are working in co-operation with the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. Both organisations refused to comment on the issue. The ACPO says only that the research is a continuing process and a number of options are being discussed, with no date set for any conclusions.

But The Engineer has discovered that the Home Office has spoken to US companies which make advanced stun guns, bean bag guns and laser weapons. Lasers fire flashes of light that temporarily blind the target, while the bean bag gun is a handgun that fires a bag containing a plastic-covered gel or lead shot. The impact can knock a suspect down from up to 10m away.

The advanced stun gun is Air Taser International’s M26 model. This hand- held, air-powered gun fires two pointed probes up to 5m. The probes can pierce clothing as thick as a leather jacket to give a 50,000-volt shock, immobilising the suspect. The Taser is now used by Canadian police and is undergoing trials in Australia.

US police regularly use bean bag guns. But their accuracy and effectiveness can vary considerably. In a study by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department only half the shots hit the preferred chest and abdomen target area. Some 60% of encounters required more than one impact to deter an assailant.

Last November, Scottish police officers attended a conference in San Diego on law enforcement equipment, which covered non-lethal weapons. Fred McManus, president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, says: ‘We brought back a lot of information on non-lethal weapons and have passed it on to other police forces.’ He adds that Tasers can work where methods such as CS spray have failed.

Other weapons developed and tested by US police forces include pepper guns, net guns and guns that fire rubber bullets.

The pepper gun works like an air pistol or rifle and fires a powder or liquid pepper irritant up to distances of 9m. Like other pepper sprays, the liquid or powder causes extreme irritation to the eyes.

The net gun fires a net to cover and immobilise a suspect up to a range of 30m, in less than a second. The net is fired from a gas propelled gun and can be used with pepper spray.

These technologies may represent a softer side to the non-lethal weapons being examined by the police. The rubber bullet gun, used in Northern Ireland in the past, is another competing alternative. A range of ammunition has been developed, including a rubber ball and soft rubber shots with a range of 10m. But despite the non-lethal tag, rubber and plastic bullets fired at close range have caused 17 deaths during the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, more than half of which were people under the age of 18.

Despite the potential for some non- lethal weapons to belie their name, civil rights organisations are not wholly against them. A spokesman for civil rights organisation Liberty says: ‘We would prefer it if the police used defensive weapons, but we understand they need to defend themselves. If they use stun guns instead of conventional guns without deaths, then that will be a good thing.’

US goes for not-so-lethal weapons

US armed forces’ experiences in Somalia and Bosnia, and the US public’s aversion to casualties, led the US military to investigate the potential of non-lethal weapons, says Jesse Lovell, a senior analyst at think tank American National Security Research.

British defence analyst Joanne Spear, of the department for war studies at King’s College London, adds: ‘The CNN factor has pushed non-lethal weapon development. The military were worried about situations where Americans might be seen on TV news bulletins using lethal weapons against combatants who could not be distinguished from the general population.’

The military hopes the weapons will give US battlefield commanders more options in non-war operations.

James Bond devices

A specialist unit run by the US Marines is developing devices that would not look out of place in a James Bond film. These include microwave radiation ray guns that inflict a burning sensation on skin, low-frequency sound waves and odours to make people feel sick and disorientated, and landmines that incapacitate combatants by firing probes to give them an electric shock.

More controversially, the US is developing chemical weapons such as gases to make people sleep, tranquillisers to calm crowds, microbes to eat fuel, sodium clouds to deprive engines of oxygen, chemicals to attack rubber tyres and plastic fittings and compounds that neutralise nastier chemical weapons.

Some US developments would be banned under the 1993 chemical weapons convention, which outlaws the use of non-lethal chemical weapons against enemy troops but permits their use against property, as long as they do not harm people or animals.

Colonel George Fenton, head of the US Marine Corps’ Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, says: ‘I would like a magic dust that would put everyone in a building to sleep, combatants and non-combatants.’

The most prominent and recently declassified non-lethal system is the Vehicle-Mounted Active Denial System, a millimetre-wave electromagnetic energy weapon which the US Department of Defense (DoD) would like to field test. It is the product of a $40m, 10-year programme and has been tested under laboratory conditions using animals and human volunteers.

The system projects a narrow beam of microwave energy that rapidly heats the top skin layers, causing pain. The beam’s sensation quickly goes away after exposure, is claimed to leave no long-term effects, and the DoD claims it does not affect eyes. The beam is most effective on bare skin, but can also penetrate clothing.

Fenton wants the weapon to be able to project a beam beyond the 750m range of small-arms fire. Work is also under way on a portable variant.

Attack by irritants

Also under investigation are micro-encapsulation systems to deliver non-lethal substances such as odours. A non-lethal mortar has been developed with a range of 1.5km. For longer ranges the military has asked US defence manufacturer Raytheon to research the use of systems for delivering foams and irritants.

Amid widespread international agreement on banning landmines, the US has developed the Taser landmine. Like the Taser gun, it fires small darts attached to wires that send an electrical current to its target, capable of rendering victims incapacitated for several minutes.

NATO expects to see these systems entering the battlefield. Dr Jacques Vermorel, head of technology studies at NATO’s Research and Technology Agency, says non-lethal weapons will ‘complement existing conventional weapon systems and improve force protection’.