TCS Daily

Quiet Riot

By Noah Shachtman - April 17, 2003 12:00 AM

There's a mountainous policing job ahead in Iraq for the U.S. military. A few projects in the Pentagon's research pipeline might have helped in that effort - but they're not quite ready for keeping order on the streets of Baghdad.

The mobility denial system (MDS) is a slippery gel that makes it pretty much impossible for vehicles or people to move on concrete, asphalt, or wood without falling down. MDS could have been useful in, say, keeping demonstration in Mosul from getting out of hand. Instead, seven Iraqis died in clashes with Marines on Wednesday, after a protest turned ugly.

But Defense Department researchers are having a tough time getting the system small enough for a single person to carry. It should be ready within a year, promises Captain Sean Turner, spokesman for the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate in Quantico, VA.

The slippery stuff replaces a sticky foam that glues rabble-rousers in place (there's a great picture of the goo here). The foam looked promising at first, but wound up with major problems of its own. First, it tended to clog up in the tubes that were supposed to shoot it out. Second, the foam took too long to harden, so people could escape before they were slimed to the ground.

Third - and most importantly - if the sticky foam got in someone's face, and it wasn't wiped off in time, it could suffocate the person. Try explaining that to Al Jazeera.

The Air Force Research Laboratory's so-called Active Denial Technology could also prove useful in keeping crowds at bay. The system shoots a microwave-like beam - one that only penetrates 1/64th of an inch deep. And when you're hit by that ray, it hurts. Bad.

There's no lasting damage to those who're hit by the beam, Active Denial developers claim. But some defense analysts aren't so sure.

"We have developed a non-lethal weapon which causes pain. What happens when someone continues to walk toward the source of the high-power microwave? What happens when panic ensues in a crowd as a result of high-power microwave? What happens when it's focused on someone's eye?" William Arkin, with Human Rights Watch, asked CNN. "What about children in the crowd? What about pregnant women and the elderly?"

A prototype of Active Denial has been tested on more than a hundred subjects over the past few years. Defense Department scientists are now working to put together the first Humvee-mounted model. But it'll be several years before the technology is used in the

In the meantime, Col. John Alexander, author of Future War: Non-Lethal Weapons in Modern Warfare, thinks the military should deploy some of the crowd-control technology readily available today: pepper spray and tear gas.

The use of such "riot control agents" has been hotly debated recently. The Chemical Weapons Convention says that these agents cannot be employed as a "method of warfare.'' The Pentagon has taken the passage to mean that the chemicals could be used for defensive purposes.

Others aren't so sure. They argue that all of these substances are lethal - if the dose is large enough. Earlier this month, a Texas man died after being doused with pepper spray.

Geoff Hoon, the British defense minister, said in late March that his country would not deploy the agents "in any military operation or on any battlefield.''

To Alexander, that's proof that "the laws against riot control agents make no sense."

He added, "Chemistry and biology have been declared bad by fiat. But there are reasonable applications for both."

One application Alexander especially likes: "pepper balls" - jazzed-up versions of the paint balls make-believe G.I.'s fire at each other every day.

There are a variety of fillings for the balls - pepper spray-like irritants, dyes to mark ring-leaders in a crowd, water that causes a big welt when it hits.

"The water ones smart like a bitch," Alexander said.

Pepper ball makers have been offering training courses to law enforcement agencies on how to use the projectiles. There are no plans, for the moment, to conduct any of the seminars in Iraq.

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