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The Joint Non-lethal Weapons Program

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“Non-lethals have a crucial role on today’s battlefield and will become increasingly more relevant on future battlefields. For many reasons, non-lethal weapons offer military forces advantages as complements to lethal systems, and in some cases, as replacements for the other systems. The smart warrior is the one who understands how to use a diverse arsenal of capabilities, and isn’t afraid to think beyond the traditional way of conducting military operations.”

– Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, USMC Former CINC, CENTCOM

The challenges facing America’s military forces deployed around the world today are legion – and the number, complexity, and consequences of those challenges are increasing. Long gone are the days in which opposing armies, fleets, and squadrons squared off for a conventional battle. Now, unconventional and counterinsurgency warfare and military operations other than war dominate the world stage. And these operations – particularly the humanitarian and peacekeeping missions – carry with them enormous strategic consequences at every command level. As one brigade commander of U.S. forces in Bosnia observed in 1996, in addition to being a commander of troops in the field, his mission in Bosnia carried the additional burden of that of policymaker. He added, “And it’s not just me, not just colonels, it’s every private with a rifle.”

Today, an American force can find itself conducting a combat patrol, carrying out a humanitarian mission, and participating in a peacekeeping operation all in one week – with the process repeated the next week and throughout the unit’s deployment. While the men and women participating in all three types of missions essentially remain unchanged, the same cannot be said of the weapons involved and force required. A patrol using M16s and other lethal arms against a fortified guerrilla outpost or terrorist safe house is one thing, but when that same patrol encounters an angry mob armed with nothing more than rocks, rubble, and sticks, those same weapons are more a liability than an asset. Before 1996, non-lethal options were limited. As then-Lt. Col. Paul R. Capstick wrote in 2001, “Without non-lethal alternatives the commander basically has two options. He can do nothing and jeopardize the credibility and control essential in peace operations, or he may go too far and apply lethal force to situations that do not require, and in fact deplore such drastic steps.”

Long rang acoustics

U.S. Army Spc. Aaron Sinclair, with the 361st Psychological Operations Company, stands guard while a long range acoustic speaker is set up to warn the people of Naqib, Iraq, that their palm grove will be set on fire Dec. 19, 2008. The U.S. and Iraqi armies were clearing the village to disrupt al Qaeda networks. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Bobby L. Allen Jr.

Actual planned military use of non-lethal weapons during a mission first occurred with Operation United Shield, the withdrawal of United Nations peacekeeping forces from Somalia in 1995. Then-Lt. Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), was tasked with the mission. During the planning stage, Zinni and his staff soon realized that at various points during the withdrawal they would be dealing “with hostile unarmed civilians such as rioters and looters.” Zinni’s staff began a search for non-lethal crowd control response weapons and equipment. His staff quickly discovered that the Department of Defense (DoD) had no non-lethal weapons inventory and that they would have to purchase “off the shelf” systems in the open market. They then faced three basic challenges: They needed the non-lethal systems quickly, they needed them in quantity, and the systems had to be simple enough to allow for crash training of personnel. To help facilitate the last point, wherever possible non-lethal munitions had to be found that were able to mate with the Marines’ existing weapon systems.

Despite its ad hoc inventory build-up beginning, the 1 MEF succeeded in stockpiling five types of non-lethal rounds for the 40 mm M203 grenade launcher, and three types of non-lethal rounds for 12-gauge shotguns, as well as pepper sprays, stinger and flash bang grenades, aqueous and sticky foams, and caltrops. The withdrawal concluded without a hitch, and the success of Operation United Shield spurred Zinni to push for the DoD to develop its own non-lethal weapons. His effort bore fruit on July 9, 1996, when the Department of Defense issued Directive 3000.3, Policy for Non-Lethal Weapons. In addition to defining and establishing department policy regarding non-lethal weapons, this directive also created the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program (JNLWP) as the responsible authority.

Beanbag Rounds

U.S. Marine Corps C Company, 4th Light Armor Reconnaissance Battalion Sgt. Stephen Redman demonstrates the proper way to load an M203 grenade launcher with beanbag rounds for a Georgian Army Soldier during non-lethal weapons and riot control training as part of an exercise. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Steve Faulisi.

The DoD defines non-lethal weapons as: “Weapons, devices and munitions that are explicitly designed and primarily employed to incapacitate targeted personnel or material immediately, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel and undesired damage to property in the target area or environment. Non-lethal weapons are intended to have reversible effects on personnel or materiel.” New terminology was also instituted, substituting “counter” for “anti” – as in counter-personnel weapons identifying them as non-lethal, compared to anti-personnel weapons, the lethal version.

To deliver flexible and effective non-lethal weapons, the JNLWP works with other government agencies, such as DARPA and the National Institute of Justice, private defense contractors, universities, and private research institutions and consultants. Since its creation, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program has designed, developed, and tested more than 80 weapons and systems. These systems can be broadly placed in three categories: counter-personnel, counter-material, and counter-capability. Counter-personnel systems seek to control crowds, incapacitate hostile individuals, deny access to an area, and clear unauthorized or hostile individuals or groups from facilities, structures, or areas of operation. Counter-material systems target vehicles, vessels, or aircraft with the goal of neutralizing them in a non-lethal fashion. Counter-capability non-lethal weapons seek to disable or neutralize command and control facilities and systems, and deny use of weapons of mass destruction by a hostile force.

While non-lethal weapons, regardless of type, are designed for tactical application, as a group, their impact is often strategic. Because counterinsurgency and military operations other than war occur in areas in which innocent civilians are forcefully commingled with terrorists and insurgents, non-lethal weapons give the commander on the field the capability of securing an area without incurring casualties among innocent civilians, thus avoiding the alienation of the local populace and its regional and national government.

What follows are some of the significant systems developed by JNLWP:

Active Denial System (ADS). Thanks to extensive media coverage, including a 60 Minutes television report in 2008, the vehicle-mounted ADS, sometimes referred to as the “heat ray” or “pain ray,” is arguably the most widely known of the new generation of non-lethal weapon systems. ADS uses directed microwave beams that heat skin to uncomfortable levels, ultimately causing the individual to flee. The beams have an effective range of up to 500 meters (more than 1,600 feet). ADS vehicles were deployed to Afghanistan in June 2010, but as yet have not been used in the field.

An Active Denial System being evaluated by the 820th Security Forces Group. The Active Denial System is a non-lethal weapon designed to engage and repel human targets by projecting a beam of energy that creates an intolerable heating sensation on the skin. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Gina Chiaverotti.

An Active Denial System being evaluated by the 820th Security Forces Group. The Active Denial System is a non-lethal weapon designed to engage and repel human targets by projecting a beam of energy that creates an intolerable heating sensation on the skin. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Gina Chiaverotti.

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