Nonlethal Technologies Become Lighter, More Potent
The U.S. military is preparing to scale down operations in Afghanistan in 2016, but it will continue operating in areas filled with civil unrest where it may be difficult to tell friend from foe.
Analysts and industry officials say the services’ need for nonlethal technologies will only continue to grow, with weapons becoming lighter and more portable, having greater range and the capability to send and receive information.
The worldwide nonlethal weapons market is expected to double by 2020, according to a 2014 report by Dan Inbar, chairman and chief technology officer of Homeland Security Research Corp. He predicts a compound annual growth rate of 11 percent from 2014 to 2020.
The U.S. market is expected to follow that trend, increasing from $500 million in 2013 to about $930 million in 2020, he said.
“When, by mistake, you fire on what you think is your enemy and you kill bystanders, you generate new enemies and you generate opposition from the media,” Inbar told National Defense. That’s a lesson the U.S. military had to learn the hard way in battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Defense Department spends about $140 million annually on research, development, procurement and maintenance of nonlethal weapons, according to the department’s 2013 annual review of the program.
In the coming years, it will invest in area denial systems such as anti-vehicle nonlethal weapons that use electrical pulses to disable engines, he said. It will also focus on further developing standoff microwave systems and millimeter wave systems that can incapacitate enemies without causing permanent damage.
The military has spent millions of dollars to develop sophisticated, technologically advanced nonlethal equipment such as the active denial system, which repels targets by shooting millimeter frequency waves at them, causing pain but no lasting damage. However, it continues to reach out to industry and academic institutions asking them to propose their own solutions.
Special Operations Command noted in a 2014 broad area announcement that it is on the lookout for “technologies that can stop/disable individuals for an extended duration, remain less lethal and be useable on combatant and noncombatant individuals. The effect must immediately prohibit the individual’s ability to perform a useful function at ranges greater than 6 feet.”
It is also seeking “technologies that use less lethal payloads to prevent combatant and noncombatant individuals from entering a specific area for a specified period of time.”
SOCOM announced in May that it had assembled a classified wish list of 100 technology needs, including nonlethal capabilities. A capabilities and technology expo was scheduled for June 10.
“The world is a changing place. It’s evolving quickly,” said Braidy Parker, spokesman for Lamperd Less Lethal Inc., a Canadian company that provides technologies to the Canadian and U.S. militaries. “We’re fighting in built-up areas. Crowd management and crowd control are becoming more necessary as people in those areas are protesting, and you don’t want to be shooting innocent civilians, but you do have to practice crowd management.”
Expanding the range of weapons while cutting down weight will be important for companies to set themselves apart in the market, Parker said. The development of new materials will result in lighter, more effective weaponry.
For example, Lamperd produces a 40 mm casing that contains 14 rubber bullets made from a patented composite, he said. Not only does this allow a user to hit more than one target with a single round, but also the bullets themselves are more potent.
“It’s not just, let’s grab a piece of rubber, put it into a grenade launcher and fire at somebody,” he said “The rubber that we’ve developed … doesn’t bounce, which means that it transfers all of its energy to the target, which means that you need less of the munitions ... to get your point across.”
The company also uses new materials to help decrease the weight of its weaponry. Its 40 mm grenade launcher is about seven pounds lighter than other ones on the market, Parker said. He would not disclose the name of the material for competitive reasons.
The military is looking for weapons that can be used both at stand off distances and in close quarters, industry officials agree. Increasing the range of systems will be vital so that troops can disperse crowds without putting themselves in danger.
General Dynamics is developing a nonlethal 66 mm grenade system called the Medusa. Other 66 mm systems have a maximum range of 30 meters, while the Medusa can fire grenades more than 200 meters, said Joseph Buzzett, director of technology programs. The company received a two-year development contract from the Marine Corps earlier this year under the mission payload module program.
“They want to be able to put this nonlethal capability out there much farther from the vehicle, so that you can start to engage people hundreds of meters away before they get so close that they could become a potential threat,” he said.
Along with the system itself, General Dynamics is developing flashbang grenades that last longer and can affect adversaries with more intense light, sound and pressure, according to information provided by the company.
The Army and Marine Corps regularly mount 66 mm grenade launchers on vehicles such as Humvees and Abrams tanks, Buzzett said. Troops have experience using such weapons and munitions, which makes it easier to train them to use the nonlethal versions. Grenades filled with payloads ranging from malodorants to dazzling lights can be fired for varied effects.
“We’ve been talking to our customers to see what are the most important [capabilities] for them,” he said. “We’re having that dialogue with them now so that we can start to develop the next generation of munitions that they need.” Future munitions could include nonlethal grenades that could jam electronics or mark people with substances that make them easy to track. Smoke grenades with visual or infrared effects that would temporarily blind those who are not wearing special goggles are another possibility.
As the military seeks to increase the range of nonlethal weapons that can be fired on land, it also is looking for ways to fire such payloads from underwater. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has partnered with industry to develop nonlethal weapons systems that would sit on the floor of the ocean, but could be recalled to the surface when needed. These “upward falling payloads” could include effects ranging from laser strobes to jamming equipment.
DARPA in March announced it was moving to the second phase of the program, where companies would develop prototype systems. The agency is looking for innovative technologies for “small sensors, expendable and small unmanned systems, distributed communications and navigation technology, novel long-range underwater communications, and long-endurance mechanical and electrical systems that can survive for years in dormant states.”
Future nonlethal technologies could incorporate communication equipment that allows users to broadcast their location and alert other troops to changing battlefield conditions.
Lamperd demonstrated in January the ability to mount camera systems on the bottom of its less-lethal weapons, permitting troops to send a real-time video stream back to commanders who can give feedback, Parker said.
The data is transferred via satellite and Wi-Fi, and there is no special equipment needed, he said. “You can pull up your iPhone and look at the stuff.”
Lamperd has not sold its mobile surveillance system so far, but Parker believes that customers will become more interested in the capability. “To be honest, we haven’t really pushed it as much as we should be pushing it,” he said.
TigerLight Inc. — which manufactures a product of the same name that combines a flashlight and pepper spray — developed a high-tech version of the device that would integrate streaming video, infrared imagery, and various communication methods, said Mike Teig, the company’s president and CEO. The idea was that if a soldier used his TigerLight, it would send out an alert to other troops containing GPS information or other data. Company officials hoped to get a rapid innovation fund grant from the Defense Department, but were ultimately unsuccessful.
The development team was able to transfer some of that technology into a civilian product called the Peacekeeper Mini, he said. That small, 4-inch long device dispenses pepper spray and has a bright flashlight that can distract an attacker. It can also be programmed to send a message via Bluetooth to a user’s friends and family if the product has been deployed, alerting them to the location of the incident and the need for help.
The company is currently assembling the final prototype of the Peacekeeper Mini and recently completed an Indiegogo campaign that brought in more than $60,000 in funding for the project, Teig said.
Most vendors indicated that Defense Department interest in nonlethal weapons is growing, but breaking through the bureaucracy of the acquisitions process is long and arduous.
TigerLight went through years of testing to make its product available to the military, Teig said. In 2011, the company landed a contract with the Defense Logistics Agency, but it has not received any awards since then because of budget issues.
“We were very excited to do business with the military, and we thought when we got the DLA contract ... that sales were going to explode,” he said. “That has been frustrating, because we put hundreds of thousands of dollars into [testing] over many years.”
TigerLight still plans on marketing its products to the Defense Department, but it won’t be relying on the military to make up the bulk of its revenue, he said.
Even established defense contractors sometimes never see their nonlethal weapons fielded. General Dynamics developed and demonstrated a 155 mm artillery round for the Army that could release various nonlethal payloads, but the requirement was canceled in 2006, Buzzett said. The services know they need nonlethal technologies, but sometimes those requirements fall lower on the priority list, he explained. Additionally, “they’re still trying to determine the [concept of operations] ... of how and when to use nonlethal.”
While the military wants to use existing systems as platforms for nonlethal weapons, it is still evaluating how to integrate lethal and nonlethal capabilities to best deter enemies, he said.
For instance, “if you bring an Abrams tank into an area but then you shoot nonlethal munitions, are you sending kind of a mixed signal?” If people believe the tank is not firing lethal munitions, adversaries could try to get even closer, he said.
Buzzett pointed to a 2013 directive by the Defense Department executive agent for nonlethal weapons and nonlethal weapons policy, which urges the services to include such capabilities in military planning and doctrine.
As the military finds solutions to those challenges, Buzzett expects the military will release more requirements, which will lead to more products being fielded, he said. “It’s definitely, we see, a growing market. But it’s still evolving.”