DEFENSE: Non-lethal Weapons

DEFENSE: Non-lethal Weapons

February 7, 2005 3:39 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What are non-lethal weapons?

Non-lethal weapons (NLW) are intended to incapacitate people and equipment while limiting unnecessary loss of life and damage to property and the environment. Some NLW deliver blows or electric shocks, spread slippery material that makes roads impassable, or disperse rapid-hardening foam to limit access to or disable machinery. Non-lethal weapons, some already available and some in development, can also disable explosive devices and block radio or television broadcasts.

How are they different from regular weapons?

Most armaments designed for military use destroy targets through blast, fragmentation, or penetration, according to a 1999 Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force Report,"Non-lethal Technologies: Progress and Prospects." (A new, updated task force report on non-lethal weapons was released in February 2004.) Experts say NLW, by contrast, have reversible, temporary effects."Most of what’s available today is relatively short-range, blunt-impact kinetic munitions," says Marine Colonel David P. Karcher, director of the Defense Department’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD)."They’re essentially improved versions of what a city police department would have."

Would NLW have applications in Iraq?

Yes. In Iraq, U.S. soldiers face guerrilla warfare, the use of human shields, and so-called intermingled targets--assailants hiding in crowds of innocent people or tanks parked next to hospitals or schools. NLW could effectively target attackers without causing unnecessary loss of life or property damage, experts say.

What are the most commonly used NLW?

Experts say there is a wide range of NLW available for use, including:


  • Tear gas.
  • Pepper spray. It causes an intense burning sensation on the contact area. The use of both tear gas and pepper spray is strictly regulated under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Blunt Impact

  • Rubber bullets/rubber balls. Fired at the ground, they bounce and ricochet off people in a crowd.
  • Square bean bag rounds, cloth pouches filled with pellets.
  • Sock rounds, a bean bag with a fabric tail to stabilize it in flight.


  • Flash/bang grenades that explode with a bright flash and loud bang.
  • Tasers that deliver an electric shock.
  • High Intensity Directed Acoustics (HIDA), which emit a 3,000-watt blast of disabling noise.
  • Weapons that use light, sound, heat, or smell to halt or disperse suspects.


  • Caltrops, metal devices used to deflate tires.
  • Stinger Spike Strips, tiny needles placed in strips on the ground to deflate tires.
  • X-net, a spiked net that can stop vehicles at checkpoints.

What are NLW most useful for?

Experts say non-lethal weapons are best for military policing activities, including: crowd control or dispersal, protecting convoys and other forms of"route control," moving or guarding prisoners of war, and security details or guard duty."Non-lethal weapons are a complementary way, along with the use of lethal force, for the commander to accomplish his mission," Karcher says."What we find most useful today are the shotgun and 40-mm beanbag-type munitions." JNLWD, the unit Karcher heads, was established in 1997. It has a staff of 19 and a $43 million budget for 2004--up from $24.2 million in 2003. It is dedicated to educating the military about NLW and aiding the armed services in developing effective NLW applications.

Who uses them?

Various police forces around the world use different types of NLW to pacify subjects and perform crowd and riot control. In Iraq, the U.S. armed forces are using six non-lethal capability sets (NLCS), at a cost of $1 million each, experts say. Each NLCS has supplies for 200 soldiers and contains a range of NLW, including expandable batons, 12-gauge"point" rounds made of sponges, riot helmets, riot shields, and Caltrops. The units using the NLCS include the 80th Military Police Brigade, the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit and the 101st Airborne in Mosul.

Would wider use of NLW help U.S. soldiers in Iraq?

Many experts say yes. Colonel John T. Boggs, Marine Corps military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the situation in Iraq--a guerrilla insurgency with local support--makes it vital that U.S. soldiers are able to exercise force discriminately."If you understand the nature of what you’re dealing with, you’ll have to change tactics and weapons systems to meet it," he says."What you don’t want to do is make enemies out of potential friends." Experts say the capability provided by NLW is invaluable."A level of force between ’shoot’ and ’don’t shoot’ solves a lot of problems," says Richard L. Garwin, the Philip D. Reed senior fellow and director in Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Why isn’t NLW use more widespread in Iraq?

Experts say it is very costly to develop, build, and test NLW technology."It’s a substantial amount of time, because we have to get it right," says Karcher. He says the U.S. military tested rubber bullets but removed them from use because they decided the risk of accidental injury was too high. A new NLW currently takes between 18 months and several years to go from conception to use by the armed forces, Karcher says. Garwin says that new NLW technologies--like the Active Denial System, a debilitating heat wave that has a range of several hundred yards--are promising, but are not being supplied in the numbers needed. Garwin says the armed forces are not equipping enough of their troops with the available NLW and have not invested enough of their limited resources in product improvement."The evolution of consumer electronics or sports equipment is far more rapid than that we have achieved with NLW and capabilities," he says.

Could NLW help establish order in Iraq?

Experts disagree. Many think that use of NLW by U.S. forces in Iraq would reduce inadvertent casualties by soldiers--shooting drivers who fail to stop at roadblocks, for example--and increase goodwill between Iraqi civilians and coalition forces. Others say NLW could be an extra distraction for soldiers who already have enough to worry about in combat situations. Some military leaders have expressed concern that soldiers using NLW will be vulnerable to renewed attack by conventional arms. But Karcher says that having access to NLW will make both soldiers and civilians safer, because soldiers often do not react to potentially dangerous incidents with lethal force for fear of harming innocent people."I’ve seen Marines and soldiers accept more risk to themselves in order to reduce risk to the civilian population," says Karcher. In Kosovo, he says, angry Serbs would pelt U.S. Army troops with rocks, sticks, and wooden boards with exposed nails; the American soldiers didn’t strike back, even after some of them were bleeding from the assaults, he says.

What other types of NLW might be useful in Iraq?

An Army report analyzing the use of NLW in Iraq this summer indicated that soldiers in Iraq most need NLW that could help them separate gunmen from human shields in crowds; sweep areas through which convoys were moving; suppress fire from rocket-propelled grenade launchers without killing nearby noncombatants; and stop suicide car and truck bombers at checkpoints.

Is there support for NLW in the military and Washington?

"There’s a building groundswell," says Karcher. The Defense Department nearly doubled the budget for the JNLWD this year, but experts say a lot more money is needed. Garwin estimates that it would cost some $200 million to $400 million per year to "jump start the deployed capability in Iraq and equip our forces for the new realities of warfare and the pursuit of the nation’s security goals." Karcher, a Marine who served in Grenada, Lebanon, Liberia, and Somalia, says NLW would have helped in many of those conflicts."We didn’t have them, and I wish we had," he says.

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