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5 Fascinating Non-Lethal Weapons Technologies Under US Research in the 1990s

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non lethal weapons

In 1991, a government report titled Non-Lethal and Discriminate Weapons and Technologies outlined the interests of the Department of Defense (DoD) in the field of non-lethal weapons.

The report cites a number of reason why the DoD took an interest in these types of weapons; however, the main reason was that military officials were looking for ways to deter situations before they escalated to bloodshed.

These weapons would be used to incapacitate enemy weapons systems, disrupt enemy communications, limit enemy mobility, and incapacitate enemy military personnel physically and psychologically. In this article, I will explore the five types of non-lethal weapons technologies (in no particular) that the U.S. military was interested in during the 1990s.

5 Non-Lethal Weapons Technologies

1. Electromagnetic Systems (EM). The Department of Defense was interested in using directed electromagnetic energy or light to disrupt an enemy’s “sensitive electronic equipment.” As the term non-lethal would imply, the goal was not the total destruction of the equipment, but rather, rendering the enemy’s combat electronics ineffective. This research most likely evolved into the non-nuclear EMP weapons that are avidly discussed today, such as flux compression generators and e-bombs.

2. Kinetics Technologies. Usually associated with ballistics, the military was interested in the non-lethal possibilities of using rapidly increasing air pressure to cause mechanical failure in equipment or to cause structural damage to buildings. The basic idea was to create an air blast wave similar to those that result in detonating an explosive device, but without the incendiary effects of a conventional bomb. These are akin to the shockwave cannons and vortex guns that were researched during World War II.

non lethal weapons

3. Acoustic/Sonic Projection. Just as with air pressure waves, the military saw great potential in using sound as a non-lethal weapon. Sound was mainly to be used as a crowd dispersal device, since the weapon could either affect the target’s balance or repel them altogether. However, since the 1990s, sonic weapons have finally come to fruition. In particular, the use of the Long Range Acoustical Device (LRAD) has proven that sonic weapons are not only possible, but effective as well. LRAD has been used many times since 2005 to disperse protesters and to deter pirates from ocean-going vessels.

4. Materials Technologies. Commonly referred to as chemical weapons, the Department of Defense was interested in using chemicals not so much against humans, but instead using it against machines. The idea was to deploy a chemical agent that would not harm people, but would chemically break down equipment parts such as rubber seals, metal parts, or electrical wiring. Such a targeted chemical breakdown would render the machine or equipment useless. Today, such research often overlaps with biological engineering, because often times the research focuses on the bioengineering of microbes to produce corrosives that would damage enemy materials.

non lethal weapons

5. Psychological Technologies. Just as materials technologies were focused entirely on equipment, Psychological technologies focused entirely on the people. During the 1990s, the DoD was interested in inducing fear, surprise, and even hallucinations to incapacitate enemies. Though the report was vague on these interests, this should not be confused with Psychological Warfare, which is the use of propaganda, black flag operations, and even terrorism. The idea in the 1990s report was to use fear or surprise as a deterrent or dispersal tool.

As the country was coming out of the Cold War, the United States began to explore a variety of options for nonlethal weapons. These weapons were to be deployed domestically and abroad.

Some of this research was based on only earlier ideas from World War II, which are still being researched; however many of the technologies mentioned in the 1991 report have come into existence and is being used today with great success.

References & Image Credits:
(1) High Tech Edge
(2) DoD
(3) Wikipedia

Originally published on

  • Sean Brennan

    It is difficult to use weapons today as a super power. More responsibility, and hence more restriction, is placed on the good guys than the bad guys. The primitive and indiscriminate weapons that are used by third-world countries will continue to maim and kill anyone and everyone. It is interesting to read about possible non-lethal weapons, but when you are fighting someone that will kill and use any means necessary, I am not sure these will effective.

“The thing about the truth is, not a lot of people can handle it.” -Conor McGregor

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