The U.S. Armed Forces don't do much shooting anymore. Even in Afghanistan, they engage in more advising and guiding than gunplay. Soldiers today are asked more often to keep the peace or defuse demonstrations, and the last thing they want in those situations is to fire a lethal weapon. That's why the Pentagon is spending more and more research-and-development dollars on weapons that stun, scare, entangle or nauseate--anything but kill.
The U.S.'s nonlethal-weapons programs are drawing their own fire, mostly from human-rights activists who contend that the technologies being developed will be deployed to suppress dissent and that they defy international weapons treaties. Through public websites, interviews with defense researchers and data obtained in a series of Freedom of Information Act requests filed by watchdog groups, TIME has managed to peer into the Pentagon's multimillion-dollar program and piece together this glimpse of the gentler, though not necessarily kinder, arsenal of tomorrow.
DIRECTED ENERGY WEAPONS Imagine a cross between a microwave oven and a Star Trek phaser: a tight, focused beam of energy that flash-heats its target from a distance. Directed energy beams do not burn flesh, but they do create an unbearably painful burning sensation. The Air Force Research Laboratory has already spent $40 million on a humvee-mounted directed-energy weapon. Expect to see it in the field by 2009.
ANTITRACTION MATERIAL Sometimes keeping an enemy down but not out is good enough. The Southwest Research Institute in Texas has created a sprayable antitraction gel for the Marines that is so slippery it is impossible to drive or even walk on it; one researcher describes it as "liquid ball bearings." Spray the stuff on a door handle, and it becomes too slippery to turn. The antitraction gel is mostly water, so it dries up in about 12 hours. It is also nontoxic and biodegradable.
MALODORANTS Working for the Pentagon, the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has formulated smells so repellent that they can quickly clear a public space of anyone who can breathe--partygoers, rioters, even enemy forces. Scientists have tested the effectiveness of such odors as vomit, burnt hair, sewage, rotting flesh and a potent concoction known euphemistically as "U.S. Government Standard Bathroom Malodor." But don't expect to get a whiff anytime soon. Like all gaseous weapons, malodorants once released are hard to control, and their use is strictly limited by international chemical-weapons treaties.
PROJECTILES No one likes rubber bullets--not the people being fired at nor the people doing the firing. "It's very easy to put out an eye, to blind someone," says Glenn Shwaery, director of the Nonlethal Technology Innovation Center. "How do you redesign a projectile to avoid that?" The answer is, with softer, flatter bullets, beanbags and sponges that spread out the impact and hit like an open-handed slap from Andre the Giant. Shwaery's team is looking into an even more radical solution: "tunable" bullets that can be adjusted in the field to be harder or softer as the situation warrants. "We're talking about dialing in the penetrating power," he says. "It's the difference between 'Set phasers on stun' and 'Set phasers on kill.'"