Today’s battle space is comprised of a multitude of conventional and unconventional operations, yet little has been done to develop a weapon system that allows the frontline soldier to deal with the complexity of this battle space. Counter terrorism, counter insurgency, counter intelligence and irregular warfare operations are intermingled with foreign internal defense, force protection, and stability, security, transition and reconstruction operations, just to name a few.
However, America’s military weapons are limited to either a lethal or non-lethal action. This outdated theory of placing man packed and vehicle mounted weapon systems into either one or the other category places our service members in a precarious situation of choosing to risk lives or take them.
A foot soldier at a checkpoint or perhaps on patrol through the streets of a semi-permissive environment has few options when rapidly approached by a local resident with unknown intentions. It should not be surprising when there is no response to either verbal or printed warnings, considering these areas are generally impoverished, with higher rates of illiteracy and low comprehension of western languages.
Although it may appear they are without a weapon, it can be difficult to judge due to clothing or the local being an occupant of a vehicle. The individual’s objective could be to attack – or perhaps they simply don’t understand the increasing angst caused by their continued movement toward the sentry or patrol.
The minuscule amount of time a soldier has to assess the situation doesn’t allow for any degree of certainty before they must act. The soldier can fire either directly at or away from the individual as a warning, but they risk killing innocent inhabitants and enraging an already uncertain populace. They can hold their fire for more time to assess the situation, but are taking exponential risks with the lives they were entrusted to protect. To move away from the area for personal safety may not be an acceptable alternative, especially during security operations.
Today’s advanced weapon systems allow American aircraft and submarines undetected penetration of even the most sophisticated defenses, and countless dollars are continually being spent on stability operations, but the choices for the soldier on the ground are limited. Perhaps we should consider developing a means to combine both our lethal and non-lethal inventories into a single multifaceted weapon system.
America’s infantry forces should not be faced with a choice that could mentally haunt them for the rest of their lives, and possibly put them under the scrutiny of non-judicial punishment or court martial when better means are within reach.
Instead our troops should have a non-lethal option that attaches to their current “lethal” weapon system, allowing for versatility on the battlefield with seamless and instantaneous transition to deadly force when necessary.
Incapacitating options by blinding or sound are strong possibilities that are currently under development, but these should not be looked upon as a separate weapon. Rather they should be developed to work in harmony with the lethal component of a soldier’s personal weapon system, similar to a sighting scope or lighting device.
Even common items on the market today may prove beneficial. A rapidly approaching vehicle blinded by the use of paint balls would identify the intention of the occupants without having to fire a lethal shot. A confused driver would stop the vehicle when unable to see the road through a multitude of colored paint splatters against their windshield. Someone seeking to harm our forces would simply disregard such nonsense until seconds later, when an appropriate lethal response eliminates them as a threat.
The development of such devices and the tactics to implement them will not be simple, but the need cannot be ignored if we are going to forge relationships of trust and respect with communities that view America with disdain. Just as our defense doctrine changes with the times, so should our most basic weapon systems. No one interfaces more with the local populace than the foot soldier. Therefore, it is our obligation to provide them with the best weapon systems to allow for the execution of current doctrine.
Mark L. Donald is a former U.S. Navy SEAL and medical officer who recently retired from the Kennedy Irregular Warfare Center, Office of Naval Intelligence, with nearly 25 years of service.