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Nonlethal Weapons 

Nonlethal Weapons Could Gain Ground in Future Missions 

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By Dan Parsons 


Philippine Armed Forces service members observe a demonstration of the
pre-emplaced electric vehicle stopper during Balikatan 2014


MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — Filipino and U.S. Marines fought side by side 70 years ago against Japanese forces in some of the most murderous combat of World War II.

In May, about 6,000 men from both forces reunited at Crow Valley in the Philippines where they practiced not killing potential enemies.

During Operation Balikatan, the two countries’ Marines learned the ins and outs of deploying with nonlethal weapons, a set of devices that are gaining traction.

When soldiers and Marines get their hands on nonlethal weapons, as in the Balikatan exercises, they gladly employ them in place of slinging lead, said Col. Michael Coolican, whose job as head of the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate is to evangelize for the technologies.

“What we’re finding from the services — when they do get to use what we have and get to see what they are, at least in these controlled environments — is tremendous buy-in to these weapons systems,” he said.

Soldiers can easily learn to operate the arsenal of nonlethal weapons currently fielded, Coolican said. More difficult is teaching troops when and how to deploy them within their standard mission sets and how to conduct that training when time and funding are at a premium, he said.

Once the Marines wrap up their combat role in Afghanistan, they will transition back to their traditional mission of responding to global crises. Nonlethal weapons are tailor-made for many of the potential scenarios they will encounter in unsettled regions of the world where firing live rounds could spark major conflict, said Kelley Hughes, a spokeswoman for the directorate.

“Appreciation for nonlethal weapons’ utility within today’s complex environments … is growing, as is recognition that nonlethals can help achieve national strategic objectives by minimizing civilian casualties and property destruction,” she said. “Continued advocacy and education about nonlethal capabilities have seen a recent uptick in the demand signal.”

The directorate’s job is not to train soldiers or purchase weapons, but to identify and develop nonlethal technologies that are useful to the services and help combatant commanders figure out where and when to deploy them. Coolican said his priority during his two-year tenure was to spread the word that nonlethal technologies are just as effective — or more so — than bullets and hand grenades in certain situations.

“One of our biggest problems is not so much our image, but explaining to people why we exist, why the Marine Corps picks up this mission,” Coolican said.

Batons, pepper spray and Tasers — typically associated with law enforcement — are currently used by military police and Air Force security troops on a daily basis. The perpetual challenge for the directorate has been developing weapons suited for combat infantrymen, to convince them the devices are worth carrying and prove to the leadership they are worth the expense.

“The other side of the story is … your standard infantry or artillery, the types of troops that are going to go out there and do the missions,” Coolican said. “How do they use them and what types of nonlethal weapons do they need to make them more effective in their standard military jobs?”

To spread his message, he enlisted Army and Marine Corps units to participate in three military utility assessments of various nonlethal technologies at bases throughout the United States. A fourth is planned for this summer at Fort Eustis in Virginia. The Marine Corps Forces Pacific Experimentation Center has served as an unbiased “referee” of the exercises to gauge their usefulness in a host of possible scenarios, he said.

During the MUAs, soldiers or Marines perform scenarios like a vehicle checkpoint stop without any nonlethal weapons at their disposal. Then they run through the same scenario — a vehicle refusing to stop when hailed, for instance — again, but with access to nonlethal alternatives to firing live rounds.

“We do want to do controlled experiments like the MUAs. What we also want to do is find where [combatant commanders] and services are doing their regular training or events and try to fit in and show … some of the things we have and how we can help them,” Coolican said.

During the Balikatan exercise, officials from the directorate and Marine Corps Forces Pacific and engineers from the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren demonstrated and rated responses from Marines on several prominent nonlethal technologies.

They included the distributed sound and light array, a nonlethal acoustical and optical device that can warn and deliver instructions to an approaching subject at distance without permanent harm. The DSLA’s light array attracts the attention of the target, while the sound array conveys specific instructions to the target.

“The DSLA is especially well-suited for hailing and warning vehicle and vessel operators,” Hughes said. “The DSLA can provide additional escalation-of-force options by assisting in clearing individuals from a given area, managing crowds and providing area denial.”

Marines also practiced the use of a pre-emplaced vehicle stopper, which fires an electrical pulse that fries an engine’s electrical components without harming the occupants.

Marines also were equipped with the LA-9/P and GLARE MOUT 532P-M optical distracters. The “dazzling” lasers are used at checkpoints, which Marines man every day in conflict.

Instead of a rifle, a Marine points the LA-9/P onto an approaching vehicle’s windshield, or directly into the eyes of a subject, bathing them with a dazzling green light that is temporarily and harmlessly blinding. The GLARE MOUT is a smaller version that can be handheld or attached to a rifle. The idea is for the laser to stop approaching vehicles so troops can gauge their intentions at a standoff distance.

“The various nonlethal capabilities deployed in support of the exercise were successfully used in a series of training events,” said Brian D. Long, the directorate’s nonlethal capabilities demonstration and assessment project officer.

Feedback on the utility of the various technologies gathered from participating Marines is being evaluated and will be used to inform fielding decisions for future missions, Long said.

Efforts to field nonlethal weapons with combat troops began in the 1990s in response to the U.S. military’s experience operating in unstable environments — like Africa and South America — where killing the wrong person could compromise trust among local populations. The Marine Corps officially took over development of nonlethal weapons for all the services in 1996 by order of the Defense Department.

Like his predecessors, Coolican is pushing for industry to make military-appropriate versions of existing technologies. Persistent needs include increased range and duration of suppressive effects and modular weapons whose potency can be dialed up or down to suit a particular scenario — there is no need to temporarily blind or stun a bystander when shooing the person away would suffice, for example.

“We’ve figured out how to get to rock-throwers,” he said. “We got that — sting-ball grenades, blunt-impact munitions. Now, how do we push that further out? To me, it’s a decision-space weapon. How do you give the commander, or whoever is the person on-scene making decisions, time to make those decisions without having to apply lethal force?”

Coolican wants weapons with longer-lasting effects, as well. The standard flashbang grenades currently issued, for instance, explode, emit disorienting sound and light, but do it only once.

“It’s disorienting for some period of time, but can we develop ones that [cause] multiple bangs, multiple flashes in one grenade? You toss one in and it has some sort of longer-term effect so that forces can deal with whatever problem they went in there to deal with.”

The directorate is working with industry to create more military-appropriate versions of current nonlethal technologies.


Within the next five years or so, the directorate plans to field the mission payload module nonlethal weapons system, or MPM. The counter-personnel system consists of an advanced, suppressive 66 mm munition, launcher and laser sighting system. The munition can be fired up to 300 meters with effects ranging from warning to suppression. Because the flashbang-like round’s range can be precisely dialed in, the effects can be delivered over a crowd’s head, or in their midst, for a range of effects, Coolican said.

“The mission payload module’s unique capabilities are ideally suited for missions such as stability operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, embassy/consulate security augmentation and a host of other direct operations in which Marine forces must escalate and de-escalate responses during complex and changing scenarios,” Hughes said.

Ultimately, “there’s really no ‘if we could just do this, it is going to be the best thing ever,’” Coolican said. The closest the directorate and its engineering partners have come to a nonlethal Holy Grail is the promise of directed energy weapons, he said.

The most promising existing directed-energy technology is the active denial system, a long-range, counter-personnel device that uses millimeter-wave energy to provide a “repel” effect against human targets with minimal risk of injury.

“It’s the perfect weapons system, because when you are engaged by it, all you want to do is not be where you are,” Coolican said. “It’s hard to explain because it really doesn’t hurt. You just don’t want to be feeling that right there. … Instinctually you want to move.”

ADS currently is about the size of a semi-trailer because it requires a huge amount of energy to operate. For that reason, Coolican is less worried about advancing the system’s capability than shrinking the batteries and generators needed to power it. 

“We can get the effects now, but we can’t get it in a militarily-packaged device yet,” he said.
ADS was deployed to, but not used in Afghanistan in 2010.  Hughes said the commander on the ground decided the system was not necessary for the current mission, but did not elaborate.

“There continues to be interest in operationally using the capability worldwide,” she said.

High power microwaves also are showing promise as a means to stop vehicle and boat engines at long range without harming the occupants. The multi-frequency radio-frequency vehicle stopper is in concept development. For it to be useful on the battlefield it must be able to stop a variety of engine makes and models on land and at sea, Coolican said. As with ADS, consistent research and development are needed to bring the vehicle stopper and other technologies to the battlefield, he said.

“Science and technology is like the running game in football,” Coolican said. “You line up and you go and you get two yards, then you line up and do it again. Eventually you get a first down, and then at the end you get a touchdown. But it’s hard work to get there.”

But the directorate’s budget — which covers analysis of nonlethal weapons for each military service including Special Operations Command — has shrunk in recent years from $120 million in fiscal year 2010. Responsibility for buying and fielding the devices falls to the services.

Program funding has been cut by more than half in the ensuing four years. It netted $67 million in fiscal year 2014 and just $58 million in the request being parsed by Congress for fiscal 2015.
 
“The most important thing we can do to get to that future is stay focused on how we’re spending our science-and-technology dollars,” he added. “Especially with the budgets the way they are, we really need to focus on getting one or two yards down the field and not losing five yards.”

Photo Credit: Marines, Be Meyers, Defense Dept.
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