Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Military's "Non-Lethal" Blow Torch

The Danger Room has been following the US military's R&D into allegedly "non-lethal" weaponry for some time. Last weekend, Noah Schachtman reported:

"Defense contractor Northrop Grumman is promising the Pentagon that it'll have weapons-grade electric lasers by the end of 2008. Which means honest-to-goodness energy weapons might actually become a military reality, after decades of fruitless searching."
Sounds promising. Then, today, David Hamblin provides a closer look at how these weapons would actually work on human targets:
"By applying a little basic physics we can get a ballpark estimate of what this might do to flesh... if the beam stays on the same spot of the target for a full two seconds –- which is a very long time under the circumstances –- it would in theory boil off a disc around one centimeter deep... Bullets are lethal when they damage a vital organ (like the heart or the brain) or when they cause rapid blood loss. Most likely, a laser of this type would not easily be able to go deep enough to affect a vital organ. Plus, the laser would will be self-cauterizing, with the heat sealing off blood vessels. It's not going to kill you quickly. Skin damage is very much easier to achieve than penetration; simply raising skin temperature to (say) 80C/ 180 f to a depth of a couple of millimeters will cause serious blistering (second-third degree burns). If 40% of the body is burned in this way, then the target will be disabled and may die. A rough calculation suggests that exposed skin would be blistered/burned in under a twentieth of a second, so the beam could play over the target at quite a high rate. It's unclear whether clothing would have much protective effect or whether it would simply ignite and cause secondary burns."
Jesus. Largely, I share Mike Innes' reaction:
"Owww. Bad.

Mad scientists. They're everywhere."
Stepping back for a moment, let's first disabuse ourselves of the notion that "non-lethal" weapons are necessarily humane or bloodless. Second, since the development or use of weapons causing "unnecessary suffering" is against the laws of war, the burden is on the US government to make the case for the military utility and necessity of these weapons. I don't see the government making that case publicly, and it's certainly not obvious to me.


Michael A. Innes said...

Yeah... I was feeling especially thoughtful about this. Thanks for addressing the real points of concern over this.


J. said...

I think you might want to reconsider your views on non-lethal weapons based on what the military actually wants to do with these systems. No one said they were "humane or bloodless," they're just supposed to offer an alternative to gunning down masses of noncombatants or angry civilians working as a mob against US forces. Second, non-lethal weapons are designed to be used in peacekeeping situations, they are not designed for combat operations, therefore you may not have a case to ban them under "laws of war."

I prefer the old ways, burning CS powder in smoke pots, tear gas grenades, soft-rag projectiles, rubber bullets, nice things like that.

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