Wrong direction

The DLR has been taken away and enclosed in a room full of men wearing white. But fear not, we have not (yet) been sectioned. The men in white are in fact naval officers (we’re in the Middle East, hence the warm weather whites). And these naval people have been talking about one of their favourite things: weaponry.

We were in fact reminded of the Futurist post from last week when contemplating some of these new guns, because of their 20th century sci-fi appeal. In particular, one area white-suited men currently get their short sleeves in a twist for is directed energy weapons (DEWs). These bad boys appeal to military bods for a variety of reason, but we here at the DLR are interested in why people outside the military may find them distasteful, most probably because of their specific properties and ‘less-lethality’.

Let us explain. DEWs are weapons that utilise targeted, directed forms of different energies rather than the traditional propellant/projectile combo that we’ve grown to love over the past 700 years of warfare. Such energies might be sound waves, particle beams, microwaves or lasers.

The latter is the most interesting for navies because, notwithstanding the massive energy requirements currently needed, lasers allow for very specific targeting, speed-of-light contact (meaning one doesn’t have to adjust for movement of the target), limitless ‘ammunition’ (again depending on power sources) and no recoil. These are all really handy on a ship, which is why the Office for Naval Research, that cosy building full of 900 PhDs (and 3,000 other plebians) that determinedly chases better ways to kill people, has looked so hard into it.

Other DEWs that have gained significant media attention are those that might be used for riot control, often called non-lethal weapons (or, our personal favourite, less-lethal weapons. How can something be less lethal? Oh, he’s only a little bit dead, so it must have been a less-lethal weapon). Hence, sonic weapons use ultrasound to cause cavitation, causing damage to internal organs and human tissue, or cause uncomfortable or painful decibels of noise that drive people away. Microwave weapons cause an intense burning effect (by, essentially, cooking the water particles in the skin), while plasma weapons heat targets intensely.

So far, so evil, and it does seem that there is a broader, public sense that DEWs are somehow distasteful. But why is this exactly? As we pointed out in our previous post on umanned aerial vehicles, this may be because such weapons appear ungallant or unfair in warfare. Collectively, we still view warfare as that most intense of competitions, like a Greco-Roman wrestle where two burly, greased-up men tangle with each other until the stronger and more able emerges victorious. Obviously, a wrestling match isn’t the same if someone turns up with a death ray.

A Phalanx close-in weapon system mounted with a sophisticated heat beam that we call a "laser."

This, to some extent, is what DEWs are like. Compared to the traditional guns and bombs currently in use, they are less avoidable, either because they are much faster and more accurate (lasers) or potentially have a wider area of effect (acoustic weapons). There is, therefore, less of an element of danger to and a greater amount of control on the battlespace for the user.

It also emphasises and reinforces the technology gap in warfare between the haves (largely, the West) and have nots (everyone else), allowing the West to act with impunity and devastating accuracy when it seeks to wage controlled violence.

However, there may be something even more to it than that. There are always technology gaps in warfare, whether it’s the use of stirrups, English oak being used in longbows or the first use of cannon. The accuracy and speed is not necessarily a problem as far as we’re concerned, either; making sure you hit the right target and not the school next to it, for instance, seems like a good thing to us. Moreover, using non-lethal weapons, albeit ones that cause intense pain, appears preferable to using very messy, lethal ones. If you have to wage war, wage it humanely.

No, we think it might be for two other reasons. One is that non-lethal weapons essentially resemble torture. Subjecting people to uncomfortably loud or damaging noise smacks of playing Britney Spears 24 hours a day to prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. It is the sort of thing you do to torture people, but on a more organised scale. Of course, arguably it’s better to torture than to kill, and being yellow-livered, cheese-eating surrender Hackneyites, we would prefer to feel intense pain for a temporary period and survive than be ripped apart by shrapnel and die. But it’s also more possible to imagine the prolonged agony and suffering caused by these weapons, as victims writhe on the ground, than it is to imagine death by bullet. The image in the mind’s eye (or on ‘t telly if these weapons get rolled out) is a thoroughly unpleasant one, even if the alternative is worse.

All he needed on his Active Denial System was some shiny rims and massive bass boxes and the ride would be fully pimped.

Second, such devices take military precision to previously inexact, and therefore less effective, civilian control measures. Tear gas and batons are all very well, but even the DLR feel like we could avoid such barrages or continue running and protesting amid them. Incapacitate us with acoustic, microwave or other DEW weapons, though, and there’s nothing we can do. It’s essentially a more effective form of control by the state, which given that we can all agree there should be accountability in governance, which necessarily is occasionally expressed through protest, is a clear concern. By this rationale, it is the improvement in potentially non-military applications of ‘non-lethal’ weaponry that is the concern, not the development in weaponry per se.

Which is all a bit of a shame. Like most people of our generation, we were really looking forward to a time when plasma weapons and lasers were the norm, and we may finally get to handle a light sabre to fulfil our Jedi destinies. It turns out that that reality may not be as fun as Star Wars made out.

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