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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 May, 2003, 23:40 GMT 00:40 UK
The weapons of bloodless war

The idea of bloodless wars on the battlefield of the future has been the subject of much debate among war strategists for a long time.

Laser-guided bombs
Lasers developed to guide bombs can themselves now be used as weapons

But the massive media attention focused on the civilian casualties during the recent war on Iraq has again raised the question of how viable use of so-called non-lethal weapons may be.

Research into the potential use of weaponry such as directed energy, ray guns and e-bombs - electronic pulse weapons that destroy electronics - has intensified in recent years, nowhere more so than in the US, the leading coalition partner in the Iraq war.

"There is a misconception that war is about killing," said Dr John Alexander, formerly in the US Army with Special Operations and now a leading advocate for the development of non-lethal weapons.

"War is about imposition of will. Non-lethal weapons fit in the spectrum of this," he told the BBC World Service's Agenda programme.

Laser boring

Advocates of non-lethal weapons say they have been frustrated by international treaties covering certain ways of using weapons.

Victim of the Moscow siege
The end of the Moscow siege saw the use of "non-lethal" gas

Dr Alexander gave the example of lasers. These cannot be shone into the eyes of the enemy in an attempt to blind them.

"It is kind of ironic that I can send a laser out if I intend to kill you, but if I have one that has a little bit lower power, I can't use it," Dr Alexander said.

He added as a result of the laws, a different type of development was being tried.

"If we had the opportunity, we would develop hole-burners - that is where we are going to go.

"In the future we will have lasers on the battlefield, but they won't be intended to blind you, they will be intended to drill a hole in you, which is perfectly legal."

Dangerous advances

But there are many who consider that non-lethal weapons remain an oxymoron.

"If you look at any advances in science, whether it be electronics, aviation, nucleonics, electricity or chemistry, at some point these advances have turned to hostile use against humans to the detriment of humans," said Robin Copeland, an advisor on armed violence and effects on weapons for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

You are going to see these systems on the battlefield, and the battlefield is going to be defined quite differently
Dr John Alexander

"In the history of warfare there has been a line in the sand drawn which is an attempt to keep out of the battlefield anything that involves toxicity on humans.

"The danger of the advances in technology that we're seeing now is that it might tempt us to step over that line."

Mr Copeland cited the example of the Moscow theatre siege by Chechen rebels, which was ended by Russian forces using an opium-derived gas to overcome the hostage-takers.

About 120 of the 800 hostages died from the effects of the gas, which caused them to stop breathing. It was the first time a non-lethal weapon of that type had been used.

"What we've learnt is that what is basically a medical agent that has been labelled non-lethal clearly carries a lethality," Mr Copeland said.

"I think it's an idea that we shouldn't even consider... each weapon should simply be considered as a weapon."

Israeli soldiers armed with rubber bullets
Rubber bullets are a common form of non-lethal weapon

Although some of the developments seem very distant, the term non-lethal weapons covers all those designed to conserve life and therefore includes rubber bullets and water cannons, both of which are in regular use with police forces around the world.

But Mr Copeland said that the words non-lethal weapons were "basically a kind of marketing term" and that "all those weapon systems should face scrutiny under international law individually and not under one umbrella term".

However, Professor Alexander contended that the changing nature of warfare, particularly since 11 September, required a change in tactics.

"The adversaries that we're facing now, particularly on the war on terror, are not ones who have signed any of these treaties," he said.

"The issue is you are going to see these systems on the battlefield, and the battlefield is going to be defined quite differently."

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