The 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack has demonstrated that India needs to develop new capabilities to deal with future suicide terrorism. With jihadi terrorists increasingly on suicidal missions in India and more attacks of the nature of Mumbai predicted by intelligence agencies, it is high time that development of non-lethal weapons (NLW) should be considered an option in order to bolster India’s present counterterrorism capabilities.
Used selectively with precision, NLWs can prevent or minimize collateral damage (civilian deaths) which is so important in any counterterrorism operation. What is important is that these weapons can also help in taking terrorists alive who can then provide crucial information about their mission, planning, modus operandi, financial, and other linkages.
Incidentally, the over-hyped arrest of Azmal Kasab on the fateful night of 26 November can hardly be attributed to any successful operational strategy on the part of Mumbai Police. Kasab’s arrest was a fluke – he would have been shot dead point blank 99 times out of 100. However, with Kasab in the custody of Mumbai police, India could effectively expose Pakistan’s brazen support to terror groups before the international community.
While there is a growing trend amongst terrorist organization worldwide to resort to suicidal attacks as part of their strategy of information denial, practically very little effort is made by trigger-happy security personnel to arrest these terrorists. Also, weapons that forces generally use to fight terrorists are often too lethal which invariably leads to shooting down the terrorists. Hence, there is a need for development of new array of weapons which can give security agencies the freedom of choice between ‘shouting’ (asking for surrender) and ‘shooting,’ especially in situations where there is greater danger of collateral damages because of the terrorist strategy to operate behind human shields.
Besides public aversion to battlefield causalities and demand for a more humane and civilized way to conduct military operations in conventional warfare, the changing nature of warfare itself has spurred research into NLW technologies globally. NLWs have the potential to alter the character and conduct military operations in a significant way as there is growing demand for these weapons globally.
NLWs can temporarily incapacitate terrorists while giving security forces a chance to capture them alive. Tear-gas canisters, rubber bullets, water cannons and so on have long been used world over as non-lethal weapons to quell mob violence and communal riots. Modern research however, has produced NLWs with increased lethality and precision.
Guns that can be used to throw ‘slickums,’ ‘stickums,’ and ‘spider-webs’ around a person or vehicles, acoustic hailing devices that produce long-range directional sound beams, direct energy weapons that produce heat beams, advanced non-lethal projectiles, and distributed light and sound array are a few amongst modern NLWs that are presently being tested for their employment in counter-insurgency operations across the globe.
Presently, US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are making the best use of NLWs to deny vehicles access to critical infrastructure at roadblocks and entry control points. However, the US military is also improving its arsenal of counter-personnel NLWs. The US Department of Defence has specifically designated the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program to build future capabilities of the US military in this direction.
The US, however, is not the only country in the world which is in the hot pursuit of NLWs. These weapons are increasingly being sought by a host of other countries. Israel last year, reportedly used the Skunk Bomb against Palestinian demonstrators in Nilin. Back in 2002, Russia’s Special Forces, in an effort to end siege of a Moscow theater by Chechen rebels, pumped an unknown chemical agent into the building's ventilation system which ended up killing 129 of the 850 hostages along with 39 Chechen rebels.
Use of NLWs, particularly those targeted against humans, remains a controversial subject. Global conventions on chemical and biological weapons prohibit development, production and stockpiling of chemicals, bacteriological and toxin weapons. This explains why much of the global research into NLWs is shrouded in secrecy. Despite international protocols constraining development of NLW, a number of countries have formally identified these weapons as a critical additional capability needed to satisfy demands of future military operations.
26/11 could be viewed as the beginning of a new strategy by terrorist organizations to fight protracted battles with the security forces in the urban environment, purportedly with the aim of taking civilians as hostages. Besides, left-wing extremists are also increasingly seeking to extend their influence to semi-urban and urban areas.
The ever-growing peril of suicide terrorism in India along with Naxal violence calls to attention new capabilities which would be required by Indian security forces to deal with these threats in future. NLWs could well supplement the already existing capabilities in fighting terrorism. However, given legal and public sensitivity surrounding use of NLWs, the government may well selectively decide which non-lethal capabilities to develop and how best to field them.