Defense Dept. Pursuing Next-Generation Nonlethal Weapons

By David B. Law
U.S. troops currently operate an array of nonlethal weapons that are becoming essential tools in today’s complex battlefield. But additional capabilities are needed.

The Defense Department recently completed an analysis of its nonlethal weapons requirements, and determined that the military services need improved technologies for missions such as denying access to hostile individuals; disabling enemies; stopping a vehicle, a vessel or an aircraft on the ground; diverting an aircraft in the air and denying access to a facility.

Deployed nonlethal weapons include blunt-impact munitions, optical warning and distraction devices, acoustic hailing devices, vehicle arresting systems, flash-bang grenades and munitions and short-range human electro-muscular incapacitation devices such as the Taser. However, most of these items operate at relatively short ranges and have some logistical limitations.

The Defense Department plans to focus research and development efforts during the next three to five years to help fill these gaps.

For the task of denying access to personnel, several directed-energy technologies are in development. Blunt-impact weapons, such as rubber bullets or bean-bag rounds, currently address this task, but these weapons are often limited to only 35 meters. Directed-energy technologies will be able to manage this task from much longer ranges, giving troops added time and space to determine someone’s intent and decide on the best course of action.

U.S. forces face these situations every day in Iraq and Afghanistan at more than 2,900 military checkpoints. This is where escalation of force comes in. It is the process by which soldiers increase the level of force they apply to a threat until they have successfully neutralized it. Nonlethal weapons give them additional escalation-of-force tools that fill the gap between shouting and shooting.

One key directed-energy technology that is now in development is the active denial system (ADS). Two prototypes were built. The ADS 1 is a technology demonstrator and ADS 2 is now suitable for military operations. The ADS projects a focused beam of millimeter waves to induce an intolerable heating sensation on a target’s skin, repelling the individual with minimal risk of injury. Although the ADS is not yet a formal program of record, the Defense Department’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is seeking to deploy the system soon. Meanwhile, development efforts are now focusing on producing these same effects with a system that is smaller, lighter and less costly.

Another directed-energy development is nonlethal thermal laser technology. Research is focusing on eye-safe, electrically efficient, infrared fiber lasers that create short-term discomfort to individuals at ranges beyond 100 meters.

In addition to active denial and thermal lasers, there are now improved hailing and warning systems. Research is showing that nonlethal weapons that employ both light and sound are often lower-cost alternatives to other more expensive directed-energy weapons. These weapons use lower-power directed energy to better notify the target to stop and/or to leave the area.

The “improved acoustic hailing device,” which is based on commercial-off-the-shelf technology, can issue either voice commands or warning tones up to a range of 300 meters. Accurately delivering intelligible commands in the local language to a threatening individual can often compel that individual to stop. Another example is the laser distractor currently in use at military checkpoints. By pointing the device at a vehicle, service members can catch the driver’s attention and warn him to stop.

The Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is developing an acoustic and optical system called the distributed sound and light array. The DSLA issues high-output, focused sound plus a powerful green laser and intense, bright white lights. The combined effect of the sound and light is far greater than either one used independently. The DSLA has a range of 5,000 meters, which s farther than any other hailing and warning system currently available.

The DSLA’s sound array conveys specific information to the target, such as instructions to stop, turn right or left. It is especially well suited for hailing and warning vehicle and vessel operators. At higher sound and light intensities, the DSLA can severely degrade the ability of opposing individuals to perform threatening tasks or communicate effectively. Similarly, the DSLA can assist in clearing individuals from a given area and managing crowds.

The DSLA is currently undergoing extensive testing and potentially may transition into a military acquisition program.

Various efforts are also underway to achieve nonlethal system to disable individuals at extended ranges and for prolonged periods.

This is a difficult task. The Taser is the only tool currently available to do this. But the Taser operates at relatively short ranges. Other devices that function at longer distances are in development, and research continues on the use of ultra-short pulse lasers. Research indicates that these ultra-short pulse lasers can induce temporary localized immobilization, as well as discomfort, when applied at the human cellular level. This technology also can be used to disable vehicles. The ultra-fast pulses, with their localized and extremely high electric and magnetic fields, can interfere with the electronic communication signals common to all electronic systems.

Other technologies are laser-induced plasmas (LIP) and laser-induced plasma detonations (LIP-D) created by ultra-short pulse lasers. These ultra-short pulse lasers generate extremely high peak power but for only very short durations — fractions of a second. Yet these durations are long enough to create reversible effects in both human tissue and in electronics. These technologies are in the early research stages.

LIP and LIP-D research is focusing on long-duration disabling of individuals and groups, denying access to individuals and groups and disabling vehicles, ships or aircraft. For example, these ultra-short pulse lasers can generate laser-induced plasma channels that can transfer a large amount of energy to a target such as a car engine block, temporarily disabling the engine. Initial research indicates that these laser-induced plasma detonations can create a series of flash-bang effects. These flash-bangs may have sufficient power to deter or suppress personnel by temporarily causing an uncomfortable wave of pressure points on the target’s body without lasting harmful effects.

Various forms of these directed-energy technologies have the potential to stop or disable vehicles, vessels or aircraft. The only barriers now in use are pre-emplaced mechanical capture systems, such as the “vehicle lightweight arresting device.” It is a barbed net that entangles the tires and locks the axles of a vehicle, forcing it to a safe stop. But these systems often have logistical limitations. Troops have asked for non-contact, long-range, reusable technologies.

“Every day, our war fighters confront situations where they have only seconds to determine whether an approaching vehicle is carrying friendly or hostile passengers,” said Col. Kirk Hymes, director of the joint nonlethal weapons program. “The JNLWP is working to develop technologies that will enable war fighters to stop those vehicles at a distance where they present less of a threat to those manning the checkpoint and pose a minimal risk to the vehicle’s passengers.”

Directed-energy nonlethal weapons that work at ranges beyond 100 meters are challenging. Research is ongoing to develop long-range, high-power microwaves and safe, moderate-power laser systems to defeat the mechanics of targeted engines and control electronics. The JNLWD is testing existing laboratory-based high-power microwave sources to determine their viability to stop vehicles and vessels at extended ranges.

Part of this effort is the radio-frequency (RF) vehicle stopping program. According to Scott Griffiths, systems engineer at the JNLWD, the goal is to produce a system that can operate on a moving vehicle at entry control points, checkpoints and possibly for convoy security.

The RF vehicle stopper uses high-power microwaves to disable the electronic control units of vehicles. Initial research indicates that the system can shut off an engine for as long as the radio frequency stays focused on it. The engine can then be restarted once the operator turns off the radio frequency. These temporary effects offer improvements over currently fielded nonlethal options such as spike strips or entangling nets. The effects are temporary. There’s no need to replace tires or cut off nets after use. Also, the RF vehicle stopper system would work at much greater distances. Next, the radio frequency travels at the speed of light, making it much more difficult for a driver to evade the system. Finally, the RF vehicle stopper could disable vehicles regardless of their size or weight.

The next step for the RF vehicle stopper program is building a prototype. The JNLWD is working with the services to develop a vehicle-mounted high-power microwave prototype.

Another promising vehicle stopping effort is the laser windshield obscuration program, which is investigating the use of laser technology to physically obscure vehicle windshields, blocking the driver’s view and forcing him to slow or stop the vehicle. Currently fielded laser distractors can cause temporary optical incapacitation, but they are most effective at night. During the day, they have useful hailing and warning capabilities but are limited in their ability to optically incapacitate. The laser windshield obscuration effort is working to produce the same obscuration effects regardless of light conditions.

Initial research attempted to identify the best laser parameters to either crack or blacken a windshield so that the driver could not see through it. One essential criterion is that the windshield must completely absorb the laser so that none of the laser pulse reaches the vehicle occupants.

Researchers successfully discovered the laser parameters that could crack a windshield without harming the occupants. In the process, they found that the same parameters produced a bright white flash on the windshield regardless of lighting conditions. This flash could cause temporary optical incapacitation to the driver in the same way as a laser distractor, blocking his vision with the intent of compelling him to stop the vehicle. Initial test results indicate that it may be possible to create the white flash without causing permanent damage to the windshield. Efforts are now focusing on identifying the laser parameters that can create this flash while minimizing damage to the windshield.

The next step for the laser windshield obscuration program is to build a system using commercial-off-the-shelf parts to demonstrate the technology. Researchers can then test the system at range and in realistic driving conditions.         

David B. Law is the technology division chief at the Defense Department’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate. Additional information is available at https://www.jnlwp.com

Topics: Defense Department

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.