Challenges Persist with Nonlethal Technology

By Dan Parsons
MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — Even for rough-and-tumble Marines, killing the enemy is not always the most prudent plan of action. Shooting the wrong person could compromise trust among local populations and in certain cases lethal force has landed troops behind bars.

Military operations over the past decades have underscored the need for weapons that don’t kill, which give troops options in tense situations other than firing live rounds. In 1996, the Defense Department gave the Marine Corps the order to spearhead development of nonlethal weapons. But the program has faced hurdles tailoring existing technology to the modern battlefield.

Once effective nonlethal gear can be deployed without weighing troops down, military officials are convinced the technology will be embraced.

“Marines realize, like all of our forces do, that killing innocent civilians is going to hinder their current mission, not help it,” said Marine Col. Tracy Tafolla, director of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate. Tafolla is tasked with studying available nonlethal technologies, developing tactics, techniques and procedures for their use and passing the information on to the services. The directorate’s main purpose is to give troops options so they can better decide what level of force is appropriate for the situation at hand.

“Sometimes it’s just an uncertain situation where our forces don’t know if there’s hostile intent there or not,” Tafolla said. “If you have some nonlethal means — when they do have to go to that lethal force — they’ve done more than just shout at someone.”

The nonlethal options are tested at Quantico in various scenarios troops could face in combat. One common problem is a vehicle approaching a checkpoint at high speed. Currently, most troops can only attempt to communicate with the driver by shouting and using hand signals. If the vehicle doesn’t stop, there’s no option other than opening fire.

Officials at the directorate want to give troops more time before they pull triggers. It is better to identify credible threats than gun down civilians only to find out they harbored no hostile intent.

The need for nonlethal weapons has been highlighted by current conflicts, where combatants hide among civilian populations. Initiatives to bring them to the battlefield began in the 1990s in response to the U.S. military’s experience covering the withdrawal of UN forces in Somalia, Tafolla said.

The directorate is a small line item in the Pentagon’s budget. In fiscal year 2010, the program received $120 million, a little more than half of which supported joint programs. That money covers the directorate’s analysis of nonlethal weapons for each military service including Special Operations Command. Responsibility for buying and fielding the devices, falls to the services.

“Each service is responsible for procurement, research and development and fielding,” Tafolla said. “We’re here to guide the services through those programs. We tell them what’s out there, what it can do and help them devise service-specific nonlethals.”

To some degree, each is fielding nonlethal technologies — an array of gadgets from rubber bullets and pepper spray, to spike strips that blow out vehicle tires. Other systems allow troops to communicate with the indigenous population in their own languages at standoff distances.

“Our forces are pretty savvy out there and if they have the right tools, they will employ them,” said Tafolla. But unlike police, who usually operate in close quarters with suspects, “we have a range challenge.”

Police officers often operate in close contact with suspects. This allows them to readily judge the threat level and respond accordingly, Tafolla said. Commercially available nonlethal weapons are designed primarily for these sort of close-in encounters and are not always readily applied to military operations.

Pepper spray may hold a protester at bay, but it is unlikely to stop a would-be suicide bomber. By the time a car laden with explosives is within range even of a nonlethal projectile, troops are within the blast radius.

Lenny Etcho, a civilian with the directorate’s capabilities and requirements division, showed an array of standard-issue nonlethal weapons. They range from the familiar — flashbang grenades — to the exotic — 12-gauge shotgun rounds that fire mini Taser-like projectiles. The latter are fired at medium range out to about 100 meters, attach barbs to an enemy and deliver a debilitating electrical charge.

“But these only work from a few dozen to maybe 100 meters,” Etcho said. “Any farther than that and you run into problems with them not making contact through clothing. Get too close and a headshot, which is always a bad thing, could kill someone. Then it defeats the purpose.”

The same goes for 40mm rubber grenades, which have a limited range in which they are effective. Shoot too far and they’ll bounce harmlessly off the target. Shoot too close and they can cause serious damage, he said.

“There are a lot of challenges with range that might not be immediately obvious,” said Tafolla. “We want to be able to get out hundreds of meters. But there are challenges with physics at those ranges.”

A projectile has to be going a certain speed to reach someone at a distance, which makes current systems sometimes more dangerous than desired when they reach the target.

Weight is another issue. Troops regularly lugging 100 pounds of gear or more will balk at being asked to carry even another pound, Tafolla said. For that reason, “We have to be very judicious about what we develop and what we field,” he said. “There’s not a Marine out there who would complain about greater capability. But they don’t want to add any more weight to what they’re carrying.”

The directorate is pushing for industry to catch up and form partnerships with services looking to increase their nonlethal capabilities.

International interest in nonlethal weapons was recently on display at a first-of-its-kind symposium held in Ottawa, Canada. Around 1,000 representatives from 100 international industries and 30 nations registered for the North American Technology Demonstration in October.

The symposium was the result of a 2007 NATO request to gauge existing, commercially available nonlethal technologies for rapid fielding. NATO’s mission in Afghanistan and counter-terrorism operations put pressure on militaries to field the technology, said Kelley Hughes, a spokeswoman for the directorate, which co-hosted the symposium with the Department of National Defence Canada.

For the first time, military officials were able to offer a plea to industry to design nonlethal weapons specifically for the battlefield.

“Right now the folks in the industrial base are working on the problems and are doing their best with what they’ve got,” said Tafolla. “We are trying to grow that industrial base to solve some of the more technologically challenging issues that are going to expand our range of capabilities.”

The U.S. military is pushing ahead with several service-specific nonlethal technologies.

The Marine version comes in a box set.

Inside four metal shipping containers painted a drab desert tan, precisely compartmentalized and labeled, is everything Marines in the field need after shouting fails and before opening fire.

The Escalation of Force Mission Module is designed to either deter violence or identify threats at a standoff, giving troops more time to decide what level of force is appropriate for the situation. Riot-control equipment and vehicle-arresting devices like spike strips are also contained in the kit.

The mobile kit also helps address the weight issue. The kit is dropped in with Marines at forward operating bases. Instead of lugging nonlethal weapons along with typical combat gear, troops can visit the one-stop shop when they need less-than-lethal equipment.

Open one end of container number two, for instance, and a squad of Marines can suit up for riot-control duty in a matter of minutes. In each of a dozen cubbies sit riot shields, helmets, batons and other crowd control measures. Open the other end and the same Marines can suit up for a different mission, be it setting up a field-expedient checkpoint or outfitting with military-grade paintball guns. These can be loaded with special rounds designed to identify targets or stun an enemy. There are more than 300 items in the kit. Each allows a less-than-lethal response to a specific situation.

Also included are acoustic hailing devices that can instantly translate English into any one of several hundred languages. Called a SQU.ID, the one-way voice translator built by Voxtec International Inc. can replay common commands on repeat for use at checkpoints. About the size of a large cell phone, the Squid has the added value of a de-facto foreign language course for troops, who end up memorizing many of the foreign phrases they use, said one nonlethal weapons trainer.

In combat zones where human translators cannot always be trusted, the devices have proven invaluable, the trainer said. A second-generation version will be able to translate foreign-language responses back to troops, he said.

Each module also comes standard with a set of LA-9/P and GLARE MOUT 532P-M optical distracters that fire a harmless green laser. The “dazzling” lasers are used at checkpoints, which Marines man every day in conflict.

Instead of a rifle, a Marine would shoulder the LA-9/P fixed to what looks like a collapsible rifle stock and shine it onto an approaching vehicle’s windshield, splashing it with a dazzling green light. The GLARE MOUT is a smaller version that can be handheld or attached to a rifle.

“High intensity visible green lasers are mounted to the Marines’ weapon, which create a glaring effect similar to the sun shining into the windshield of a car,” said Dave Bland, Marine Corps Systems Command’s ocular interruption project officer.  “This glaring effect on the driver will require the driver to change their approach to the check point [by] either slowing down or stopping.”

The idea is for the laser to stop approaching vehicles so troops can gauge their intentions at a standoff distance. A militant would likely try to avoid or flee the laser, which has no permanent affects.

With a total of 50 available, 20 deployed to Afghanistan and another 49 on order, the escalation-of-force modules are one of the most successful results of collaboration between a service and the directorate, Hughes said.

The escalation-of-force module is a Marine-specific approach to nonlethal capabilities. Other services have their own.

The Navy, for instance, has put acoustic hailing devices, along with dazzling lasers, to use fighting piracy. Sailors are able to hail incoming skiffs and judge their intentions without having to fire on them with live rounds or allow them to get dangerously close to combat ships. Depending on time of day and the model used, the lasers can give non-verbal warnings at ranges up to one kilometer, according to Etcho.

The same systems can be mounted on vehicles for use by land forces.

New technologies are emerging to fit military-specific needs. They include pre-emplaced electronic vehicle stoppers, nets that can entangle boat propellers and multi-frequency radio beams that can shut off vehicle engines at a distance.

Tafolla summed up the basic goal of the program.

“We need to buy our troops range,” he said. “Range equals time. Time equals better decision-making.”                                 

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology, Land Forces, Robotics

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