Skip to Content

Less Lethal Weapons

Are they honorable or horrible? We don’t yet know-but they might give us valuable options in Iraq and elsewhere.

The Lone Ranger never killed a bad man. In 22 years of fighting for justice (on radio and television), he always aimed at the outlaw’s gun. In doing so, he not only defeated his enemies, but he won over the hearts and loyalties of millions of kids, including me.

We need a similar capability in Iraq. Consider our recent problems in Fallujah and Najaf, where our forces were powerful but impotent, capable of leveling a city, but uncertain how to make peace and win the support of the people. We cannot train our soldiers to match the Lone Ranger’s fantastical skill. But there may be an alternative: less lethal weapons (LLWs). Debate about these weapons continues, with opponents worrying that they will actually make violence more common-but I suspect they will be used anyway, out of sheer practicality.

The impotence of overwhelming power is not a new problem. We encountered it with nuclear weapons. They wreak such death and destruction that we haven’t used them for 54 years. As an alternative, we made conventional weapons smart. But even these are too terrible to use in post-war conflicts. The situations we are encountering in Fallujah and Najaf involve numerous civilians. The issues there are closer to police and riot control problems than they are to war.

Soldiers are not good policemen. They are trained for the extreme environment of war, when they must kill quickly and efficiently or be killed themselves. Police are trained to work in a different way. They are most effective when they live in the neighborhood they patrol, and know all the people. They rarely shoot their guns, and prefer to depend on authority and persuasion. When those fail, they have a host of less lethal weapons to try. Many of these are well-known, including tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, bean bags, and tasers (named in honor of Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle). These have recently been supplemented with more sophisticated technology. “Fire pellets” are like paint balls but filled with pepper spray. “Stinger grenades” explode with rubber pellets and pepper gas; they can also give a blinding flash and frightening bang. Guns that shoot wooden dowels do more than hurt-they inflict debilitating but usually non-fatal injury.

The military capability in the use of less lethal weapons is growing. An illustrative example occurred last year. A large group of Iraqi civilians (estimated over a thousand) was looting buildings in the Rasheed Military Base of the Republican Guard. U.S. soldiers, armed only with lethal weapons that they were forbidden to use against looters, were helpless. But the area was cleared ten minutes after the arrival of eight soldiers who had been trained in Los Angeles Police Department riot control techniques. Their weapons were bean bags, rubber bullets, stinger grenades, batons, and a public address system with an Arabic speaker. (This example is taken from a recent report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.)

The list of available LLWs is growing. For denying access to large areas, the military now has a “mobile barrier foam system” that can spread a meter of foam containing tear gas over an area of 400 square meters. It would not stop a trained military force, but it would certainly deter most civilians. “Sticky foam” is a material shot out of a high-pressure gun system that can be carried by a single soldier. It slimes the victim with a tacky material that makes it hard to move; it has been called a “high-tech lasso,” although it is more analogous to the ancient gladiator’s net. Microwave weapons can remotely deliver a painful (but supposedly harmless) burning sensation on the skin. Long-range nonlinear acoustic devices overcome the normal atmospheric diffraction of sound to direct a narrow beam at a target; I saw one demonstrated last year. This sound can confuse and disorient individuals and groups.

Ironically, the strongest argument against these weapons is that they are not terrible enough, and therefore the military (or the police) are more likely to use them. And-the argument goes-using them frequently will often cause more harm than if the weapons were not available. This is a recapitulation of the weapons paradox, which I wrote about last year.

Truly nonlethal weapons do not exist. When the Lone Ranger whacked a bad man on the skull with the butt of his gun, most viewers assumed (incorrectly) that it causes no more than a few minutes of healthy unconsciousness. In reality, such a blow often results in concussion and sometimes in death. It is a tricky business to disable without killing.

In October 2002, Russians used a supposedly nonlethal gas (identified by them as the opiate fentanyl) to subdue terrorists in a Moscow theater, but in the process they killed 117 of about 800 hostages. An expert doctor, in a hospital facility, can apply an anesthesia with fair reliability. To do it safely at a distance is impossible. What were once called “nonlethal weapons” were renamed “less than lethal” weapons, and now the preferred and more accurate terminology is “less lethal.” 

There are other concerns about LLWs. According to Amnesty International, some governments use tasers for torture and to extract confessions from political prisoners. Some LLWs already are outlawed by treaty. The United States ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits us from using tear gas in war. (Interestingly, under this treaty, tear gas can still be used for police action against civilians, both at home and in foreign countries.)

In December 2003, police in Oakland, CA, used dowel guns to break up a demonstration on the docks, leading to serious injuries (you can see photos of the results here). Supporters say that the use of such weapons put a quick end to an illegal demonstration. Critics say that the availability of the LLWs led to substantially greater injury than otherwise.

Robert E. Lee said, “It is good that war is so terrible: we should grow too fond of it.” Will LLWs make war less terrible, and therefore more likely? Or will they permit us, in essence, to simply shoot the guns out of the hands of the bad guys, and at least open the possibility of winning over the hearts of the children? These outcomes don’t conflict; they can happen together. Our challenge is to make the right mix so the balance will be one we’ll be proud of.

Deep Dive


Capitalizing on machine learning with collaborative, structured enterprise tooling teams

Machine learning advances require an evolution of processes, tooling, and operations.

The race to destroy PFAS, the forever chemicals 

Scientists are showing these damaging compounds can be beat.

How scientists are being squeezed to take sides in the conflict between Israel and Palestine

Tensions over the war are flaring on social media—with real-life ramifications.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.