The involvement of U.S. troops in peacekeeping operations around the world
has created a growing demand for so-called "non-lethal" weapons. Many
of these systems-which have been in use by law enforcement agencies for many
years-generally are designed to incapacitate people and vehicles, without necessarily
The idea is "that we don't have to burn the village to save it,"
said Marine Col. George Fenton, director of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate
(JNLWD). He spoke at a non-lethal defense seminar hosted by the National Defense
Industrial Association, in Tysons Corner, Va.
But Fenton and other officials at the conference agreed that non-lethal is
a misnomer because many of the weapons currently labeled "non-lethal,"
such as rubber munitions, in fact, can kill a person under certain circumstances.
The U.S. Marine Corps has been at the forefront in the use of non-lethal weapons
in military operations. This, however, "does not mean that they can't kill
or injure," said Fenton. He explained that the goal of his program is to
develop a system that can "minimize fatalities," while, at the same
time, provide robust tools for things such as crowd control. "We [aim to]
incapacitate individuals, deny access and clear facilities and structures"
of people who are considered opponents but also are non-combatants.
"While everybody else [in the U.S. military] is downsizing," he observed,
"we are growing." The non-lethal directorate was created by congressional
mandate under the 1996 National Defense Act. It has a budget of about $24 million.
The demand for non-lethal systems has grown proportionally to the reluctance
of U.S. military commanders to use lethal fire against civilians, even in combat
Because every conflict is broadcast on live television today, Fenton noted,
U.S. leaders do not want to trigger a public opinion backlash. When angry mobs
are the enemy, for example, U.S. forces want to have alternative forms of dealing
with them that do not require lethal fire. "Having overwhelming firepower
does not mean that you can win," said Fenton.
He believes there should be a mix of lethal and non-lethal capabilities available
to U.S. troops, so they have options at hand depending on the circumstance.
"There's a niche that only non-lethal will fit," asserted Marine
Lt. Gen. Raymond P. Ayres Jr., deputy chief of staff for plans, policies and
operations. "Decisions have to be made on an individual basis, rather than
the classic model of a rifleman in a regiment where individual decisions are
not generally required. Humanitarian missions such as Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti
have changed the decision-making process."
John J. Cline, systems manager at the Army Materiel Command's non-lethal program
office, explained that U.S. soldiers have access to "non-lethal capability
sets." These are pre-packaged metal containers that include 57 types of
items, ranging from non-lethal weapons, munitions and training gear, to protective
equipment-such as helmets, face-shields and body armor.
Among the tools designed for crowd control are standard-issue items such as
teargas, pepper spray and capsicum powder, flash-bang grenades and hand-held
These non-lethal capability sets are pre-positioned in strategic spots around
the world, so they are more easily accessible to soldiers in deployments, said
Fenton. The Marine Corps has fielded 27 of these sets.
The Army plans to purchase 30 sets, at a rate of five per year, said Maj. Gen.
Joseph Cosumano, assistant deputy chief of staff for operations and force development.
Each set is designed to support a company of approximately 200 soldiers.
Army's New Vision
Cosumano supports the concept of combining lethal and non-lethal capabilities.
He believes that non-lethal systems could become important players in the Army's
effort to field lighter and more mobile units that would be suited to lower-scale
contingencies and peacekeeping operations.
Having non-lethal capability as an alternative to lethal force-and being able
to switch back and forth between the two-gives commanders significant flexibility,
"In the future, battlefields will be more distributed and will cover a
wider area [than they do now]," Cosumano said. "We will be tasked
to control the wide spaces as we go for more important targets and by-pass lesser
ones. Soldiers will need to immobilize these and then move on to important targets."
The ability to control these "wide spaces" will be enhanced by the
commander's access to non-lethal options, explained Fenton. In practical terms,
this means being able to shift from non-lethal to lethality without changing
weapons platforms, which is known in non-lethal warfare parlance as "rheostatic
One example of such capability would be an airborne, tactical laser system
mounted on either a fixed-wing aircraft or a helicopter.
Fenton noted that, with such a system, U.S. forces could target military convoys
that have non-combatants mixed in with enemy troops. The opponents' vehicles
would be disabled by frying the electrical systems, without causing any human
On one occasion, Fenton said, Iraqi gunners placed anti-aircraft batteries
on the roofs of hospitals. That situation would have offered an ideal opportunity
for employing airborne lasers, he said.
"Lasers are not necessarily non-lethal and have to be used with precision
and caution," Fenton added.
Today, soldiers are trained in both lethal and non-lethal methods. "We
will still train soldiers in the basic skills of self-protection and mission
accomplishment," Cosumano said. But Army leaders increasingly will expect
soldiers to become more multi-faceted in their war-fighting capabilities.
Selected units will specifically be trained in non-lethal weapons applications
and techniques for crowd control and dispersal, he said. They also will learn
new rules of engagement that will be more closely aligned with their particular
missions, Cosumano added.
"Just to carry an M-16, you have to qualify," said Marine Maj. Steven
A. Simpson, deputy director of concepts and requirements division at JNLWD.
"The same standard will also apply to non-lethal weapons."
Maj. Steve Ijames of the Springfield, Mo., Police Department, is a nationally
respected instructor in non-lethal weapons. He told the conference that, in
recent years, U.S. police forces had learned valuable lessons from their British
counterparts, who had experience in containing unruly crowds in Northern Ireland.
Ijames stressed the importance of proper training in the use of non-lethal
munitions on human subjects. Among the more popular kinetic impact devices are
so-called beanbag and sockbag rounds.
In 1971, in Grants, N.M., a beanbag round caused its first known fatality,
he said. Normally, it takes more than a single round to sufficiently incapacitate
a subject, said Ijames.
A square beanbag fired from a .12 gauge shotgun has about the same impact as
a line-drive hit in baseball, he explained.
But he cautioned that smooth bore, single projectiles, such as beanbags, are
hard to control. Among the more recent experiments was the use of a sock round
with an attached drag-line, which increased accuracy to beyond 15 feet. At that
distance, square beanbags generally begin to lose accuracy. Both beanbags and
sock rounds are filled with number nine shot. A sock round looks remarkably
like a sock, with the foot and toe area filled with shot and then tied off,
with the remainder allowed to act as a tail or dragline.
In general, Ijames said, police shooters like to keep a distance of 21 feet
between themselves and a single subject. If the subject is moving, this becomes
more problematic. With crowds, he said, they prefer a 30-foot gap. The longest
hit with a beanbag occurred at around 67 feet, he said.
Ijames recommended not shooting at the chest, where a person normally should
be able to take a punch. Authorities have confirmed that at least six people
have been killed in the United States and Canada since 1971, with non-lethal
weapons. Ijames said that, in each case where a fatality occurred, a chest shot
had been attempted. He recommended aiming for other vulnerable, soft tissue
areas of the body, such as the abdomen and lower back.
Ijames did not recommend using kinetic impact devices from short distances.
One industry representative, whose company supplies non-lethal rounds to the
Navy, noted that firing from distances shorter than 10 feet is considered unsafe.
"Even the best tools are useless without proper training in how to use
them," said Bob Walsh, president and director of research and development
at Technical Solutions Group, a non-lethal weapons contractor located in Charleston,
S.C. "You can hurt yourself or other people."
While working for the Navy's science assistance program, Walsh helped assemble
the "less-than-lethal," weapons package for U.S. forces in Somalia.
Walsh said that the non-lethal capability sets and the concept of "force
continuum" came out of this experience.
He explained that force continuum means that "you take control of the
situation before it takes control of you," he said. Untrained troops tend
to allow a crowd to mingle and assemble for too long before they act. "By
then, it may be too late," he warned.
"Non-lethal is not a silver bullet. It is not an end-all," said Air
Force Brig. Gen. John Barry, director of headquarters strategic planning.
To make the most effective use of non-lethal systems, he said, objectives have
to be defined clearly. He noted that the United States currently uses other
non-lethal tactics such as information warfare, electronic warfare, military
deception and psychological operations.
It should not be assumed that a non-lethal military force is gentle, he said.
"If you have a non-lethal deterrent, you have to have a lethal backup,
especially if you go at it on an incremental basis. Then, of course, there are
treaty concerns [that have to be considered] when it comes to using lasers,"
Barry said. He specifically cited international bans against the use of lasers
as a blinding weapon.
Another reason for favoring non-lethal weapons, he said, is because "you
can avoid the costs of destroying the target and then having to pay to rebuild
it." Energy-pulse bombs, such as those used against the Belgrade electrical
power grid in last year's war against Yugoslavia, is one example of a successful
non-lethal system, Barry added.
Barry believes that non-lethal weapons have a place in strategic planning,
as long as they are accompanied by conventional lethal force.
On a humorous note, one industry official from San Antonio pointed out: "If
Santa Ana had used non-lethal weapons, no one today would remember the Alamo."
Non-Lethal Weapon Technology Primer
Claymore-style rubber bullet mine: This version has a range of 30 meters. Mounted
on a tripod, it is intended to fire a blitz of rubber bullets at approximately
chest height. Scheduled for 2001.
40mm crowd dispersal cartridge: Affords Indirect fire capability using an M203
grenade launcher. The canister scatters a wide pattern of rubber pellets. Scheduled
for early 2001.
Portable vehicle arresting barrier: A perimeter security device that deploys
from what appears to be a speed bump. A fully deployed net can stop a 7,000-pound
vehicle moving at 40 mph. The net remains secured around the vehicle following
the stop, thus trapping any occupants inside. Scheduled for the third quarter
Ridged foam: Quick aerosol application that hardens almost instantly with air
contact. The foam is intended to block doorways, secure motor vehicles or create
barriers. Scheduled for 2002.
Non-lethal 81mm round: It is used for down range, indirect fire-support. The
rounds deliver either beanbags or rubber bullets. They are not scheduled for
production yet. This non-lethal capability is still in the planning stage.
66mm vehicle mounted non-lethal grenade launcher: It is an indirect fire-support
system that could deliver either a distraction device such as flash/bang, or
kinetic impact devices such as sponge grenades or rubber batons. The production
of this system has not been scheduled.
Non-Lethal Systems Already in Use
Instant Banana Peel: It is a slippery surface coating first used for riot control
in 1972 to deny either foot or vehicular travel.
Flash/bang grenade: It is intended to scare people away and not incapacitate
them. The idea is for non-combatants to leave the scene. It can cause temporary
vision impairment and hearing loss.
Concussion grenades: They explode at 160 decibels and cause temporary deafness.
Acoustic dazzler grenade: It explodes at 145-155 decibels and lasts for up
to 45 seconds. It is considered more disorienting than the concussion grenade.
Aero-rubber ring: Fired from a grenade launcher, it is a rubber baton round.
This hard rubber projectile is effective at 40-50 meters. It was designed for
crowd control after the Kent State shootings in 1970.
Oleoresin Capsicum: It is better known as pepper-balls and is fired by a CO2
gas cartridge. It has the same effect as pepper spray but is delivered in powder
form from a greater distance.
Sponge grenade: Fired from a 40mm grenade launcher, this device is either a
metal or plastic mass covered in front with a soft sponge-type surface. It is
a blunt-trauma instrument that is designed to stun. Currently, it is used by
the Marine Corps.
Rubber baton: A hard rubber projectile that resembles a stopper or a plug more
than an actual baton, it is used against massed crowds. The South Africans used
to fire them from machine guns. They called them "sausages." The South
African version was designed to tumble for greater impact.