The following is an English translation of a French article. Some technical terms or definitions used in France or in Europe may not correspond to those used in the USA or in other countries. The reader should take this into account.
I - INTRODUCTION
The evolution of our societies and mentalities has led to profound changes in many sectors. The law enforcement sector has not been spared. The need to provide law enforcement agencies with the means of defense that enable them to carry out their various missions, and that are proportionate to the threats they face, has shown the need to better bridge the gap between empty-handed defense and the use of a weapon, which is lethal by nature.
The idea of being able to neutralize an individual, or a group of people, without inflicting irreversible or even fatal injuries initially gave rise to the concept of non-lethal weapons (NLW).
The Armed Forces were not spared this new way of thinking. However, the military tended to be resistant to this new concept. They considered the NLW to be inherently law enforcement, which was not their mission. The "new wave" thinkers did explain to them that, in the context of certain missions abroad, they might be required to carry out acts of "outdated policing" for which their conventional weaponry would not be suitable. This was certainly, for the followers of Sun Zu, the first step toward wars without casualties. Our military remained skeptical. But they were disciplined and did not hesitate to add this new tool to their arsenal, just in case. The conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation proved them right, since in this war, LLW, let alone NLW, seem to be unknown, whether they are attackers or defenders.
II - DEFINITIONS OF LESS LETHAL WEAPONS
From non-lethal weapons (NLW) to less lethal weapons (LLW)
The concept of less lethal weapons is not new. Especially if one refers to writings, dating back to 500 BC, on the "Art of War" attributed to the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, who already considered that subduing an enemy army without loss, neither for one nor for the other, and that appropriating an intact territory rather than its ruins was the supreme art of war. More than a humanitarian concern, it was obviously the will to keep intact the resources to be conquered, both material and human.
The word "definitions" deserves to be pluralized, because it must be admitted that, in addition to a very general definition that affects the military in particular, there are other definitions of less lethal weapons that are much more restrictive, depending on the country and the context in which they are used (in particular, peacetime law enforcement).
Perhaps the most general definition is that found in the then Directive 3000.3 on Non-Lethal Weapons, issued in 1996 by the US Department of Defense:
"Non-lethal weapons are discriminating weapons that are explicitly designed and primarily used to incapacitate personnel and equipment, while minimizing lethal risk, permanent injury to personnel, and unwanted damage to property and the environment."
Unlike conventional lethal weapons that destroy their targets by explosion, penetration or fragmentation, non-lethal weapons use means other than total physical destruction to prevent a target from continuing to function.
Non-lethal weapons are intended to have at least one of the following characteristics:
They have relatively reversible effects on personnel and equipment;
They affect objects differently in their area of influence.
It is clear that this definition of non-lethal weapons, which is already a little old, seemed to be more flexible than its title, since the aim of these "non-lethal" weapons was to minimize the risk of death and irreversible injury without, however, excluding it 100%. This is probably why these weapons were renamed "less lethal weapons" or "sub-lethal weapons".
In the case of peacetime law enforcement, particularly in France, the definition of less lethal weapons specifies that the use of this type of weapon must not result in death or irreversible injury.
As we shall see, while this desire to protect the life and physical integrity of the person affected is commendable, it is nonetheless a pious hope. If this very restrictive definition of absolute non-lethality is still valid, some specialists in this field qualify it as utopian and consider it as a limit towards which research in this field must tend, unfortunately asymptotically.
III - THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF LESS LETHAL WEAPONS
There are many types of reduced lethality weapons, and it would be a challenge to draw up an exhaustive list of them.
One possible classification is to distinguish between weapons intended to be used directly against humans, LLW-AP (anti-personnel - less lethal weapons) and weapons with an anti-material action, LLS-AM. There are, in fact, weapons with reduced lethality designed to neutralize material without destroying it or causing too much damage.
We will quickly review these two categories in order to inform the reader about the numerous researches conducted in this field. We will then focus on a range of kinetic energy LLW-AP whose purpose is to interact more or less violently, by blunt shock, with an individual in order to render him unable to continue his action. It is, whatever one may say and without wanting to reject high technology, the simplest, most reliable and most effective way to neutralize an individual. This is the field of choice for wound ballistics, one of whose missions is to test the lesion potential of the munitions used and to determine acceptable energy levels.
III-1 - ANTI-MATERIAL LESS LETHAL WEAPONS (LLS-AM)
We will start with this category, which we will quickly go through, and expand on the LLW-AP.
LLW-AM, as their name indicates, are intended to disrupt and block the functioning of machines and devices, whether mechanical, electronic or computerized, in order to annihilate the adversary's capacity for action (means of transport, communication, etc.). LLW - AM also target buildings and other structures.
Among the means likely to be used against the rolling stock, one can quote substances modifying the characteristics of fuels, solvents attacking the material of tires, detonating cords breaking the wheels, harrows puncturing tires, hyperfrequency transmitters disturbing or destroying the electronic ignition systems of engines.
Electronic and computer systems can be disrupted or destroyed by high intensity electromagnetic pulses or by the dropping of micro carbon fibers or products highly charged with graphite which will insinuate themselves inside electrical and electronic devices and create short circuits.
Buildings, roads, structures will be attacked with chemicals weakening steel and concrete, dissolving asphalt...
If the direct action of these products is destined to be on materials, the indirect influence on man can not be negligible. Indeed, to speak only about the means of communication and the ways of circulation, their blocking or destruction can involve serious consequences for the populations (famine, deprivation of care...) which, at the origin, were not targeted.
The means of influencing the climate on more or less extended geographical areas are also studied and have probably been used during past conflicts (Vietnam war, in particular).
LLW-AM seem to be intended to be used only in military actions. This is true for many of them, and some countries invest considerable sums in this field of research. However, some LLW-AM are perfectly suited to the needs of civilian law enforcement in peacetime. Examples include vehicle immobilization systems and telecommunications jammers.
Moreover, the internal and external security missions carried out by police forces for some and armed forces for others, often call for the same intervention equipment and generally present strong similarities (anti-terrorism, counter-narcotics, crowd control, etc.).
III-2 - ANTI-PERSONNEL LESS LETHAL WEAPONS
Anti-personnel less lethal weapons are also numerous as there are so many different ways to incapacitate an individual.
III-2-1 - Kinetic energy anti-personnel less lethal weapons (LLW-K)
In the family of less lethal anti-personnel weapons, kinetic energy weapons are ranked at the bottom of the sophistication scale. Indeed, their purpose is to give a shock, a blow to the adversary likely to incapacitate him, to put it simply: to knock him out or in a state close to knockout so that he cannot continue his action. This method of neutralization goes back to the dawn of time.
One condition, however: the projectile must behave as a blunt object and not as a piercing one.
To cause a "simple" pain is generally insufficient as the threshold of perception of this sensation is variable according to the individuals, their state of excitement or their subjection to a psychotropic product (alcohol, drugs...).
These weapons have the advantages of simplicity: they are relatively effective, easy to transport and to use (training in their use is simple), their effects are predictable, and their price is low. They can be provided collectively or individually.
It is for all these reasons that they are finally used so much by the forces of order under the name of Sub-Lethal Bullet Launchers (SLBL) or more simply, defensive bullet launchers (DBL).
The projectiles fired by these weapons are often made of solid or honeycombed rubber, sometimes of flexible plastic, in order to minimize injuries on impact. Indeed, these projectiles, which are supposed to flatten on impact, transmit their impulse over a larger surface than their initial calibre. This reduces the risk of serious damage to internal organs.
There are also projectiles made of an envelope of various materials, rubber, canvas, etc., containing a ballast in the form of powder, lead shot or other component, the purpose of which is also to spread out as much as possible on impact.
The 40 mm launchers, originally designed for military use, require the use of more sophisticated ammunition. The projectiles are made in such a way that the body of the projectile is hard enough to allow it to be rotated by the internal rifling of the barrel and the head is soft enough not to cause serious injuries on impact.
The calibres of the projectiles, all materials combined, of the LLW - AP are variable. We can quote, for the most common ones :
9 mm for handguns, sometimes 12 gauge with shortened cartridge (12-50);
12 gauge (rubber, plastic) for shotguns (single shot, dual shot, buckshot) ;
37-38 mm caliber designed to fire only less lethal projectiles and differing from the 40 mm launcher, capable of firing less lethal and lethal projectiles ;
40 mm fired by multipurpose launchers (sub-lethal ammunition, and lethal for war use) ;
44 mm such as the Flash-Ball, the first SLBL equipped in the French national police force ;
56 mm for projectiles that can be fired by French law enforcement tear gas launchers.
It should be noted that, until recently, a defensive bullet launcher could be developed in any caliber except 40 mm, in order to remain in the field of LLW and thus avoid the possibility of firing lethal projectiles. In fact, the 40 mm caliber launchers were intended to fire war ammunition, lethal ammunition, including fragmentation grenades. The introduction of 40 mm launchers in the police force shows, to say the least, an evolution in mentalities.
These kinetic energy LLW-AP seem to be disconcertingly simple, even trivial.
However, when these weapons are subjected to extensive testing and evaluation, one realizes that their simplicity is only apparent, and that the exercise of trying to combine in a launcher the qualities of effectiveness and absolute non-lethality, for a range of firing distances sufficiently wide for operational use, is akin to squaring the circle.
This problem is easily explained when one considers that the importance of the lesions generated by these weapons is in close dependence with the kinetic energy of their projectiles or, to be more in agreement with the experimental observations, their impulses or momentum.
In fact, the projectile, like all projectiles, as soon as it leaves the barrel, loses its velocity, and therefore its effectiveness or its danger, depending on the distance of use for which the launcher has been designed.
Clearly, if we study a projectile such that it can neutralize an individual at a distance of 20 meters, thus still possessing sufficient speed to be effective without generating serious injuries to the organs underlying the impact zone, we can bet that at a shooting distance of 2 meters this same projectile will be able to generate very serious or even fatal injuries, given that at this distance it has a much higher speed than at 20 meters.
In a schematic way, we can consider that the ballistic characteristics of kinetic energy LLW-AP must evolve within a more or less narrow zone, the lower limit of which represents the effectiveness threshold and the upper limit the lethality or irreversible damage threshold.
Irreversible lesions pose, in turn, an important problem: which organ(s) should be taken as a reference to evaluate this lesion potential?
If one chooses the liver or the spleen (fragile and highly vascularized organs) all is not lost for SLBL. If it is the eye, we can definitely hang up these defensive ball throwers when we know that a simple tap on the eyeball can lead to retinal detachment.
Hence the need for designers and especially testers of this type of weapon to develop rigorous test protocols in order to eliminate the risks of lethality or serious injury while remaining within an operational logic.
To this end, the testers are tasked with evaluating launchers and their projectiles to determine their lethal potential and to validate (or not) these weapons as meeting the criteria of lessthal or not.
Depending on the request, the testers will be responsible for determining an energy or impulse threshold for operational use.
At present, only lesion ballistics can provide the answer to these questions.
• The promise of the future: an acceptable and constant lesion potential over the entire range of use distances
The solution for obtaining acceptable and constant efficiency and injury potential over a wide range of operating distances is through telemetric sighting. The possibility of determining the distance between the shooter and the target will allow the speed of departure, and therefore the impact, of the projectile to be adapted.
This idea is not new. It was held back by technical problems that are now being overcome. There are a few prototypes.
III-2-2 - Anti-personnel less lethal weapons other than kinetic energy
A quick inventory of LLW-AP other than those using the kinetic energy of a projectile can be drawn up, starting with psychological weapons.
Like others, this field is vast, but it is possible to illustrate it with the diffusion, for example, of words, ideas or images that are shocking, or even unbearable with respect to the cultural or religious background of the individuals towards whom they are directed.
The application of psychotropic or strongly sedative products in the form of aerosols has been studied. There is nothing really innovative in this process, as it is in fact only a "softened" version of the use of combat gas.
Biology is not to be outdone. The dispersion of bacterial agents capable of discomforting and weakening a group of individuals for a time is a good way to slow down or even stop an adversary.
Disruption of the senses also offers a wide range of means of incapacitation.
As far as sight is concerned, high-powered flashes or projectors temporarily blinding the individual or stroboscopic light sources set to a specific frequency known to trigger epileptic seizures can be used and some are already used.
More or less discordant sounds emitted by high intensity sound sources quickly become unbearable to the ear. Sounds of high amplitude but of very low frequency (infrasound) can also cause nausea, visual disturbances, disorientation, and possibly lesions due to the resonance of internal organs.
The sense of smell can also be attacked by nauseating substances (hydrogen sulfide, for example) forcing the occupants of an area to leave. Irritant gases (CS, CN, pepper -oleoresin capsicum-) are still widely used.
Faced with this profusion of proposed systems, one must know how to be reasonable. During a conference on lessthal weapons, a manufacturer proposed a very low frequency sound transmitter, in the order of one hertz, which is supposed to 'agitate' and therefore disturb the central nervous system. It was explained to him that, during a jog, the brain of the runner was subjected to a movement of a frequency of approximately 0.5 hertz without causing any inconvenience.
III-2-3 - Electrical pulses weapons
Electric shocks delivered by electronic devices used in contact or at a distance are to be included in the LLW-AP arsenal. In this respect, we can mention the TASER® electric pulses gun which projects two darts connected by conductive wires at a distance and whose trains of pulses, generated at a well-defined recurrence frequency, cause a neuromuscular disruption annihilating any voluntary command of the muscles located in the region of influence of the current. In other words, the intensity of the electrical impulses is such that they take over the neuromuscular action potential.
The marking of individuals with coloring substances, more or less indelible and detectable in the visible or ultraviolet, allows their identification at a distance in time and space.
III-2-4 - No LLW without employment doctrine
This paragraph is short, but it introduces a very important concept: the doctrine of using an LLW.
Given the sometimes narrow line between the threshold of effectiveness of an LLW and that of lethality, in addition to the precision required in the development of this weapon and the rigour of validation tests, an LLW can only be qualified as such if it is accompanied by a doctrine of use. Some services even went so far as to refuse to use an LLW with which they were newly equipped until they had received the doctrine of use.
Cette doctrine d'emploi devait notamment préciser dans quel cadre l'LLW devait être utilisée, la manière de la mettre en oeuvre, les modes d'usages interdits.
For optimal use of an LLW, i.e. maximum efficiency and minimum danger, the user must be both well informed and well trained.
IV - LESS LETHAL WEAPONS, REALITY OR UTOPIA ?
IV-1 - Factors modulating dangerousness
If we had kept their original name, "non-lethal weapons", we could talk about utopia.
If we stick to their current name, we can consider that they are part of the reality.
The risk of fatal injury inherent in their use is very low, but not zero. However, we are only talking about direct risks.
In fact, the use of a device designed to puncture the wheels of motor vehicles may not have the same consequences on a four-wheeled vehicle as on a motorcycle. Disabling an engine will not have the same effect on a land vehicle as on an aircraft. Hence the importance of an employment doctrine.
The consequences that can result from the disruption of land routes, radio communications and the climate can be highly lethal: famine, lack of care for the civilian population, impossibility of maintaining order, cities open to organized bands of looters.
The complexity inherent in the use of less lethal weapons is apparent.
The environmental hazard factor has just been highlighted; in one context, some LLW can be used with less risk, in another, it is better to abstain.
Let's take for example an individual or a group of individuals who unduly occupy a premises with the aim of claiming. Faced with this situation, several behaviors are possible.
We can wait for the individuals to get tired and finally abandon the premises, even if they consider that their action has not been entirely successful.
In this case, patience has been a kind of LLW.
If you want them to leave the premises more quickly, you can use a smelly substance that will make them uncomfortable. The premises can be vacated in a few minutes and presumably no one will suffer, except perhaps honor.
Let's put ourselves in another, more pressing situation. We are faced with an excited individual, very threatening. The danger is imminent. We must neutralize him. Whatever the LLW-AP we are going to use (kinetic energy, gas, electricity), we expect a very short response time. The shock, whatever its nature, will have to disturb, unbalance the major physiological functions of the person (breathing, neuromuscular function, perhaps circulatory function), and this in a way that is all the more intense as we want a rapid action on the part of our means of defense. There is a risk, therefore, of approaching the threshold of lethality, especially if the individual is weakened by an illness, stress, psychotropic substances, etc.
IV-2 - The dichotomy between lethal weapons and less lethal weapons. Its reality, its dangers
Strictly speaking, lethal weapons, as opposed to less lethal weapons, can generate lethal wounds even though they are not necessarily sought after. Yet, according to reports from war surgeons, conventional weapon wounds (bullets, shrapnel) are fatal in only 20 to 25 percent of cases. Rates of fatal gunshot wounds are even lower in the civilian sector. Lethal weapons can be cynically considered to have a very poor performance. It is not impossible to imagine that conventional, lethal weapons will be less lethal the more progress is made in emergency medicine. The boundary between conventional and less lethal weapons will become increasingly blurred.
For the time being, this dichotomy is still well entrenched in people's minds. It is not without danger, if only from an ethical point of view, when the police officer, in carrying out his or her mission, has to choose between conventional and LLW weapons.
V - CONCLUSION
The overview of the field of less lethal weapons has shown the advantages they bring in filling gaps in the means of defense or response, opening the way to a continuum between negotiation and use of conventional lethal weapons.
We have also seen that the consequences of their use, depending on the environment in which they are used and the speed with which we want their effects to manifest themselves, are highly variable and can border on the limits of lethality.
They may raise other issues.
If one hesitates to resort to extreme solutions, one will more easily fall back on intermediate means. Their quasi-non-lethality could lead their owners to abuse them, to use them systematically or even as a preventive measure in order to keep groups of individuals and/or entire countries under their control.
Hence the need for greater vigilance and control in their use.
Less lethal weapons, whose purpose is to preserve human life, must not be allowed to alienate human freedom.