Weapons that once were meant only for police use increasingly are finding their
way into military units in Iraq and elsewhere.
These so-called “non-lethal” weapons have seen their share of controversy,
but, nevertheless, experts predict that the challenges of urban combat will
force U.S. commanders to increase their reliance on devices that temporarily
disable suspected enemies, but do not necessarily kill.
The need for these systems was made more evident after British troops and Iraqi
police shot and killed Iraqi civilians during a January protest in southern
town of Amarah. Experts note that the political costs of using lethal force
on unarmed civilians justify the need for a variety of non-lethal systems that
can be adapted to different crowd-control scenarios.
The solution is an array of “scalable” weapons that range from
non-lethal to less-lethal and, if necessary, lethal force, within the rules
of engagement, said Bo Barbour, program support officer for non-lethal weapons
at the Army Futures Center, Training and Doctorate Command, Fort Monroe, Va.
“The contemporary operating environment points to the need for spiral
development of technologies with scalable effects in the near term for the combat
force,” he said.
According to Barbour, the engagements in Operation Iraqi Freedom and in Kosovo
proved the usefulness of the Army’s Non-Lethal Capabilities Set (NLCS),
designed for military police units.
The NLCS has five components: individual soldier-protective equipment, mission-enhancement
devices, training devices, and counter-personnel and counter-materiel systems.
“Engagements in Kosovo and OIF have validated the investment in commercial-off-the-shelf
12 gauge non-lethal munitions for point and area application, as well as non-lethal
munitions adapted to the 40 mm M203 grenade launcher,” said Barbour. “Both
munitions when employed in concert with all of the other components of the NLCS
have proven to be effective in breaking the cycle of violence when MPs have
been confronted with crowd-control situations.”
The NLCS, additionally, has been employed in joint service cordon-and-search
operations, enemy prisoner-of-war camps and checkpoint-control missions.
“These experiences have highlighted the requirement to invest in non-lethal
weapons with greater range and human effectiveness,” said Barbour.
Thirteen NLCS systems have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, said James
Sutton, program manager for close combat systems at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.
“The feedback is positive,” he said. “It’s a capability
that commanders recognize the need for, especially for the situation they are
In the fiscal year 2003 supplemental funding bill, Congress added money to
buy more than 90 platoon-sized sets, said Sutton.
After ceasing production of the battalion-sized NLCS, the Army decided to seek
funding for the platoon-sized sets, based on a growing demand from the field,
A new addition to the NLCS is X-net, designed to stop vehicles, said Sutton.
X-net is a portable vehicle-arresting barrier that springs up on command and
stops vehicles. It is portable and light enough for two soldiers to handle,
The Army is considering fielding non-lethal munitions for the 40 mm Mk-19 grenade
launcher and the M-16 rifle, said Barbour.
In response to urgent requests, the service is fielding the M-26 Taser electro-muscular
disruptor weapon, which uses conducted energy to incapacitate individuals at
close range, said Barbour. The FNH-303 launches blunt trauma projectiles out
to 100 meters. Additionally, the Army has funded and is procuring a “vehicle
lightweight arresting device” to stop vehicles at checkpoints.
Future developmental efforts, meanwhile, focus on scalable directed energy
systems, said Barbour.
Lessons learned from OIF will be incorporated into the development of these
systems, he added.
As the Army continues to field more non-lethal weapons, experts question the
effectiveness of some systems.
The M26 Taser, most notably, may have a minimal effect on people who have become
chemically impervious to pain, said retired Army Col. John B. Alexander, the
author of several books on non-lethal weapons. Newer versions of the system
have proven more effective, he added.
“With the new version, you go down. It’s like being hit with a
sledgehammer,” said Alexander. “But once the power is removed, you
return to normal.”
Another concern with Tasers is that a soldier must be within close proximity
of the person he is firing on. The range of the wire that transmits the electrical
current is only 21 feet.
“It’s not appropriate for military standoff application,”
said Glenn Shwaery, director of the Non-lethal Technology Innovation Center
at the University of New Hampshire.
The center is exploring how an electrical current can be sent down an energy
field, such as a laser, to incapacitate a person and still remain non-lethal.
This technology could give such weapons standoff capability, said Shwaery.
The range of available non-lethal weapons for anti-materiel, anti-infrastructure
and anti-personnel situations is increasing, said Shwaery. “It’s
as broad as you can imagine,” he said. “There are at least a dozen
categories of interest to the military.”
Since the bombing of the USS Cole and the car bomb attacks on U.S. embassies
in Africa, the requirement has been for systems that would deny access to ground,
sea and air vehicles, said Shwaery.
“It would be desirable if you could turn engines off remotely,”
One denial system the military is looking at is directed energy. Shwaery said
this is high priority, because it has a range of up to hundreds of meters (precise
ranges are classified).
At NTIC, researchers have been looking at sticky foams and super adhesives
to neutralize the stockpile of confiscated Iraqi weapons, said Shwaery. Although
the “glues” originally were developed to seal doors and windows,
Shwaery believes the technology could have an added benefit. Tests are under
way to determine if adhesives would work on weapons, he added.
NTIC, an arm of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, looks to expand capabilities
and technologies, said Shwaery. The JNLWD, based at Quantico, Va., is the Defense
Department’s lead agency for non-lethal weapons.
“We are almost like a headhunter for military requirements,” he
said. “This center is looking at technical revolution instead of evolution.”
Alexander said it’s important for U.S. military planners to understand
when it’s appropriate to trade lethal force for less-than-lethal alternatives.
He points to situations, such as the looting of government buildings after
the fall of Baghdad, where a non-lethal technology would have assisted U.S.
“I argued that during the [looting] of the museum, foam technology could
have been used to seal the area,” said Alexander. “Yes, it would
have made a mess, but it would have insured that the artifacts remained.”
In the late 1980s, Alexander was director of advanced concepts for the Army.
At the time directed energy was seen as a system with great promise, but 20
years ago, the technology was unable to deliver the power needs, he said.
“There have been advances in directed energy for stopping vehicles, but
I don’t know of any good enough to stop vehicles all the time,”
said Alexander. “Also, when you shut off a vehicle, it doesn’t stop—you
now have a big [moving] rock.”
JNLWD declined to discuss which non-lethal weapons have been or will be deployed
to Iraq and Afghanistan. But according to several sources, a number of systems
already are employed for control of crowds and prisoners of war.
JNLWD received $44 million in the fiscal year 2004 budget, up from $25 million
The directorate is looking at mounting a directed energy system on a Humvee.
The program is being conducted under an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration.
After developing concepts and evaluating their utility, a decision will be made
on whether to produce and deploy the system, according to a JNLWD official.
The Pentagon is interested in a man-portable version, said Shwaery. The high
cost, however, will probably prevent wide fielding of a portable system.
“We may have a unit deployed with this technology,” he said. “I
talked with one commander who said he wouldn’t mind taking one soldier
and making him a non-lethal weapons guy.”
Shwaery sees the potential for directed energy weapons to eventually be mounted
on unmanned aerial vehicles. They could be used for locating and then stopping
“It would prevent firing lethal weapons on civilian or friendly convoys,”
Technologies, such as malodorants, anti-traction materials, entanglement devices,
sensors and holograms, are less sophisticated systems that sometimes can be
“Low-tech items will always be important,” said Shwaery. “Spike
strips are low tech, but they have a place. They are inexpensive and easy to
NTIC funded research into an anti-traction material—a water-based spray
that can be put on bridges and roadways to deny access to pedestrians and vehicles.
Shwaery said it is 10 times more slippery than ice and can be effective anywhere
from four hours to 24 hours after application.
“That’s a perfect example. It’s not a weapon,” he said.
“You have taken the bridge out of the hands of the enemy without destroying
it. It’s incredibly cost-effective [to use] chemical technology to deny
The material also can be applied on buildings to prevent enemies from scaling
walls or even placing a ladder against the surface, Shwaery said.
Sensors that can determine if a person is armed, or that can sniff out explosives
or chemicals are some of the concepts that Shwaery said are on the horizon.
One technology is a network of seismic sensors that could be dropped from an
airplane and used to detect a vehicle driving down the road.
By networking the sensors, an individual could determine what direction and
speed a vehicle is traveling.
Despite the growing acceptance of non-lethal weapons in military operations,
experts acknowledge that nonlethals have an image problem. Even the Department
of Defense would like to find a new name for non-lethal weapon technology, said
The harmful effects of stun devices, millimeter wave emission systems, physical
irritants and chemicals often are highlighted in the press, said experts. Incidents,
such as Russia’s use of deadly Fentanyl to free hostages in a Moscow theater
or suspects who have died after being exposed to pepper spray or electric stuns,
have fueled controversies surrounding the use of so-called non-lethal weapons.
In October 2002, Chechen rebels took almost 600 theatergoers hostage in Moscow.
Russians soldiers stormed the site after using Fentanyl gas to incapacitate
all those inside. More than 100 died, many due to the effects of Fentanyl, a
The JNLWD said the U.S. military is not pursuing Fentanyl for use as a non-lethal
weapon. But Alexander sees a place for Fentanyl, despite its high risks.
The Russians failed to save innocent people, because they withheld information
about using Fentanyl from medical personnel on the scene, and there was inadequate
transportation to get victims to hospitals, said Alexander.
Alexander said there has been a misunderstanding of some non-lethal weapons,
such as the perception that pepper spray is a deadly gas.
“Pepper spray, it ‘smarts,’ but you’ll have 100 percent
recovery,” he said. “But it has been compared to Zyclon B in the
media.” Zyclon B was the gas the Nazis used in concentration camps.
Millimeter wave emission technology heats up water molecules on a person’s
skin. It can cause intense pain. But once an individual is out of harm’s
way, there is no residual damage, said Rich Garcia, a spokesman for the Air
Force Research Lab.
“It’s useful if the enemy has mixed in with friendlies,”
Another issue is whether using these types of gases would constitute chemical
warfare, said Alexander. “I argue we have the wrong treaties,” he
said. “We based these treaties on decades-old technology.”
Malodorants are a technology under review at the Nonlethal Environmental Evaluation
and Remediation Center at Kansas State University.
The center advises the Department of Defense on the environmental consequences
of non-lethal weapons.
Larry Erickson, director of the center, said so far researchers haven’t
found any insurmountable problems with malodorants.
“With stink bombs and these types of materials, you need to have enough
knowledge so you don’t have lethal consequences,” he said.
The center also has also examined the environmental impacts of pepper spray
and other irritants, said Erickson.
“We found, in general, that these materials are biodegradable,”
he said. “We came to a good understanding of what happens to pepper spray-type
According to Sutton, malodorants have been tested for a while.
“The Army could initiate a program to put it into [artillery] rounds,”
“In a couple of years they could have it available.”