Weapons in the Playroom

With the War Games of Real Life, Imagination Plays an Even Larger Part Imitating Children’s Toys

On the battlefield of today’s wars, there is more than lead flying through the air. Laser guns and microwave weapons are beginning to pulverize opponents. But this technical revolution is still in the Stone Age compared to with what is happening in a child’s playroom.

Here are things that generals can only dream of. But maybe if they could just make those children’s toys a little bigger and a little more powerful…

Which is, in fact, exactly what they are doing. The first toy-based weapons are now production ready, and in their testing phase.

Warfare has changed. In modern asymmetrical wars, the soldiers’ fields of action are often now in urban areas, where the rules of war – and threat of media exposure – no longer allow the use of conventional weapons. So in asymmetric wars, armies need imagination to meet these new challenges.

The Great Toy War

With the war games of real life, imagination plays an ever larger part.

The quality of imagination needed, weapon designers often find in children. Is this simply a macabre coincidence, or a logical consequence of a deeper trend?

Spiderman is a super hero, as every child knows. He moves around on all surfaces with lightening speed and immobilizes his enemies with a spider’s web. His powers are silent, used from a distance, and have no fatal after-effects. Thus, for over 60 years now, Spiderman has had a system of non-lethal weaponry that satisfies most modern military demands – and has been a perfect example to follow.

The interesting thing is that weapon engineers have been doing exactly that. The first weapons “from the playroom” are now on the battlefield – “childish” solutions for modern military challenges. These solutions fit well on peacekeeping missions abroad, where armies have, at times, been subject to civil resistance. They also answer the question of how to fill the gap between the warning shot, legitimate but ineffective, and the lethal shot, prohibited on civil targets and furthermore highly dangerous, as it could provoke riots.

Think of Spiderman again, throw a spider’s web, neutralize the enemy quietly… Over the last few years, Spiderman costumes have been a big seller, complete with integrated web blasters – a thrower of spider’s webs. You point at the target, pull the trigger, and voilà – a yellow liquid is thrown at your playmate, several meters away, transforming into sticky foam while flying through the air. In another variation, Spiderman shoots little foam arrows soaked with blue liquid – completely washable and causing no lasting injury. The hapless playmate does have counter measures: he can confuse his opponent with light beams from his “battle-stick,” a kind of electron sword inspired by the Power Rangers. By simple vocal commands, it throws little smoke rings in the direction indicated by an acoustic receiver.

From Toys to Weapons

Today, these advanced technologies in toys are being taken over by adults. Armies are developing “non-lethal” weapons that neutralize the enemy, if possible from a distance, and with no lasting physical consequences or collateral damage. At least in theory. The center for the development of the “Big Toys” is the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate at the Pentagon, developing the weapons that will uphold the picture of a clean surgical war. The goal is to hobble the enemy, non-lethally incapacitate. This would have been a dream come true in Iraq.

“Sticky Foam” is one of those weapons; possibly inspired by Spiderman, developed in the U.S., and first used in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Feb 28, 1995. This weapon utilizes a burning, super adhesive, instant foam, which can be shot with a pressure-gun onto civilian demonstrators, rioters, or the like.

Since that day, the arsenal of non-lethal weapons has grown considerably. There are net-throwers that neutralize the enemy, like a fly in a spider’s web. The Power Rangers’ battle-stick has too found its way into a real arsenal, only the rings of a narcotic gas can be shot over longer distances, holding together because of the round shape.

Inverted Influence

Two generations ago, the toys little boys played with were patterned after weapons in an evolution that imitated history: Until the age of 5, they would fight with their bare hands, then a wooden sword. At 11 or 12, the more sophisticated could shoot a longbow, crossbow, or a gun with compressed air. But the parallels with the weapon’s history stopped there.

The toys were inspired by the weapons, and not the other way around.

Nowadays, you simply need to look at the children’s toys – Transformers, Power Rangers, Spiderman – to guess what tomorrow’s soldiers will be using. It is the weapons that are inspired by the toys.

This should no longer come as a surprise. Arms engineers, responsible for developing new technologies, have often other duties… like writing science-fiction novels, for instance. This means, as designer Olaf Arndt points out, that the people imagining toys for children are the same people developing weapons for the military – among others, Doug Beason, Janet Morris, and Tom Clancy.

Let the Unthinkable Exist!

The children’s world of imagination knows no limits. A child does not understand the existence of gravity or other natural laws, or that the effect of a bullet on a body will probably be death. As a consequence, a child’s imagination is much freer and less conventional. A child can think the unthinkable – a much harder thing for an adult. Children can picture themselves as Spiderman. The Spiderman costume made for children brings along some of his powers: the costume has non-slipping gloves, permitting easy climbing, and as the little blue arrows mentioned earlier hit a surface, the red suit becomes blue, as a symbol for being blocked.

But a costume with superpowers that blocks the impact of bullets? These “impossible” ideas too are becoming reality. The Natick Soldier Center of the U.S. army is developing a program called the “Future Warrior Concept,” which creates “Spiderman” style costumes for soldiers, made of nano fibers that not only instantly contracts when a bullet impacts, but is also increases strength, allowing soldiers to carry more equipment. The US army foresees many more such technologies by 2010 and 2020.

But children are already more advanced. They don’t fight in person anymore. The current trend in toys is towards robots operated by remote control, called “Battle Wheels,” who do the real fighting, instead of those operating the remote control. It’s perfect! No need to soil your hands to make war! Just like those robots out the scouring for land mines, robots for battle will surely come soon. Stay tuned…

 

Niklaus Meier, a Sergeant in the Swiss Army, is a lawyer in Zurich and also works as a translator for both weapons systems and toy manufacturers. This article is taken from a presentation at the Conference on Children in Crisis, hosted by Webster University Geneva in February, 2008.

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