Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 02/2009

NATO and the challenge of non-lethal weapons

Cees M. Coops

September 2008

NATO Defense College


The capability to apply lethal force manu militari has always been a hallmark of the military, as an instrument in the hands of their political masters to further the interests of the state. Driven by technological innovation, the means to apply lethal force and large scale destruction have been expanded tremendously over the centuries, to the extent that nation states decided that it was in their common interest to curtail or prohibit their use outright, but lethality remained as a qualifying factor. It is not surprising, therefore, that the phenomenon of Non- Lethal Weapons (NLW) was virtually non-existent during the Cold War.3

Adding NLW to the military toolbox was at least initially rather a consequence of changed political realities in the post Cold War era than a military requirement. NATO forces were tasked to undertake operations which were markedly different from the mission they were trained for when the Cold War was still on, like peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. The media were omnipresent in conflict zones, and the brutality of armed struggle was shown in real time on television. It had a negative impact on western constituencies, to the extent that negative media coverage in the case of tactical mistakes could even carry strategic consequences. Public resistance was growing against fatalities from war-like operations at the time when the so-called peace dividend was cashed, reinforcing the call for more “humane” warfare. The time was ripe to look for alternatives to lethal methods.