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Tasers on Steroids and More: 21st Century Non-Lethal Electrical Shock Weapons

The Department of Defense’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD) at Quantico, Va., is the go-to place for weapons designed to do everything but kill an adversary. One JNLWD program is the Human Electromuscular Incapacitation Bioeffects project; in other words, stun guns—the most famous being the taser. Under development and coming into service is a variety of advanced Electro Muscular Disruption (EMD) weapons designed for building and perimeter protection.

An EMD weapon delivers a powerful jolt of electrical energy that overrides – “short circuits” – an individual’s central nervous system, temporarily incapacitating the person. Existing tasers fire a compressed air cartridge containing a twin-electrode dart. The dart trails a conductor wire connecting the dart to the gun. When the dart hits its target, the electrodes automatically deliver, within a five-second cycle, multiple electric shocks –  each lasting just a few microseconds  – a microsecond being one millionth of a second. The immobilizing effect usually ends within seconds after the cycle has ended. JNLWD, together with outside research centers and defense contractors, is testing a variety of new EMD weapons that include a new nanosecond electric pulse taser that’s more powerful than existing tasers. To clarify, a nanosecond lasts just one billionth of a second.

On the surface of things, that seems wrong – shorter shocks should mean a weaker weapon, right? But David B. Law, technology division chief at the JNLWD, said the opposite is true. “[S]hort-pulse simulations and research appear to be demonstrating a degree of voluntary muscular impairment or inhibition that remains in effect for durations longer than the exposure period.” So far research has been limited to tests conducted on tissue samples in vitro and theoretical studies. One study using 60-nanosecond pulses revealed a “profound and long-lasting loss” of electrical activity in cell membranes similar to nerve cells. The effect lasted fifteen minutes.

In addition to the handheld systems are the ones designed for passive defense. One of two types of tasers designed for perimeter protection is the Sentinel Taser Area Denial System, which can be located both in and around a building or structure. The Sentinel is operated by remote-controlled cameras placed in strategic locations. The system is equipped with seven directional dart cartridges and is capable of hitting seven different targets simultaneously within an arc of 160 degrees and 30 feet deep. Once fired, the taser darts remain active until they are manually turned off.

Under development is a second type of perimeter protection taser, the Taser Anti-Personnel Munition (TAPM), a non lethal land mine. The effectiveness of conventional, camouflaged lethal land mines is linked to it being undetected until triggered. But the effectiveness of a TAPM centers on it being highly visible. Painted in a bright color and placed openly on the ground as a warning, it is designed to be triggered only if an intruder fails to heed that warning. The TAPM contains several cartridges containing electric probes. Motion sensors on the TAPM can detect movement up to 21 feet from it. When the intruder or intruders get within range, the TAPM uses compressed nitrogen cartridges to shoot the probes at a speed of 180 feet per second. Once the probe strikes the intruder, a five-second cycle of electric shocks is transmitted from the TAPM through the attached conducting wire to the probe, immobilizing the person.

But Tasers are not the only EMD weapon in the non-lethal arsenal. The Stinger is a taser-like gun that fires two or four darts propelled by an explosive charge. It has a range of up to ten meters. It also can be equipped with a TruVu video gun camera which can be used to record audio and video of the engagement where the Stinger is used, making it useful for evidence and debriefing purposes.

Another EMD weapon is the Sticky Shocker, a wireless EMD that can be fired from M203 or M79 grenade launchers as well as a 37 mm launcher. The Sticky Shocker is accurate up to ten meters. Upon impact, the projectile, which contains a battery and electrodes, clings to its target and delivers a series of short high voltage pulses that immobilize the target.

Additional non-lethal EMDS under development are the StunStrike, which uses artificial lighting effects to incapacitate its target; the Extended Range Electronic Projectile (XREP) shoulder fired wireless grenade; and the StunRounds bullet, that employs piezoelectric pulses that affect bones.

Obviously, JNLWD wants to make sure that these weapons are non-lethal. A non-government independent board of experts, the Human Effects Advisory Panel, is  responsible for reviewing the weapons with respect to their impact – temporary (short and long term) or permanent – on the human body.

All this work is to ensure that warfighters on the field have non-lethal options in an increasingly complex battlefield environment.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...