of lethal weapons consistent with applicable national and international law and approved Rules of Engagement.34

3.4.3 Ethical, Legal, and Societal Questions and Implications

The diversity of nonlethal weapons types and of possible contexts of use complicate ethical analysis.

Controversy over Terminology

As suggested in the introduction to this section, the term “nonlethal weapon” is arguably misleading, because such weapons can indeed be used with lethal effects. The public policy debate over such weapons is thus clouded, because many of the issues that do arise in fact would not emerge were such weapons always capable of operating in a nonlethal manner.

For example, how and to what extent, if any, should the intended targets of such weapons be taken into account in determining whether a weapon is “nonlethal”? The physical characteristics of the intended target must be relevant in some ways, but this requirement cannot mean that a machine gun aimed at an inanimate object should be categorized as a nonlethal weapon.

Are cyber weapons nonlethal? Yes, to the extent that they do not cause damage to artifacts and systems connected to their primary targets. But many cyber weapons are also intended to have effects on systems that they control, and malfunctions in those systems may well affect humans. Are antisatellite weapons nonlethal? Yes, since most satellites are unmanned. But if fired against a crewed military spacecraft, they become lethal weapons. Are chemical incapacitants nonlethal? Yes (for the most part), when they are used in clinically controlled settings. But the Scientific Advisory Board of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded in 2011 that, given the uncontrolled settings in which such agents are actually used, “the term ‘non-lethal’ is inappropriate when referring to chemicals intended for use as incapacitants.”35


34 Science and Technology Organization Collaboration and Support Office, Annex B: NATO Policy on Non-Lethal Weapons, available at http://ftp.rta.nato.int/public//PubFullText/RTO/TR/RTO-TR-SAS-040///TR-SAS-040-ANN-B.pdf.

35 Scientfic Advisory Board, Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on Developments in Science and Technology for the Third Special Session of the Conference of the States Parties to Review the Operation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, October 29, 2012, available at http://www.opcw.org/index.php?eID=dam_frontend_push&docID=15865.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement