Clashes between US forces and civilian demonstrators in Iraq is the kind of problem that might be tackled with new non-lethal weapons that are in development by the US Department of Defense (DoD), say proponents of the weapons.
Directed-energy weapons and tear gas-armed unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) may expand the options of military commanders dealing with situations where combatants are interspersed with civilians, or civil unrest threatens stability in post-war operations, experts and military officials say.
Some of these potential capabilities run into international protocols limiting the use of incapacitating chemical agents and weapons that might cause undue harm. On the flip side, experts say, there are also questions about whether using non-lethals over trusted lethal tactics puts troops in danger.
Even as many of the technologies approach maturity, analysts and officials say there are still many issues that must be resolved before the weapons are more broadly used. These include development of doctrine, training and rules of engagement for new systems, as well as reviewing whether policies restricting their use are still appropriate.
US Marine Corps (USMC) and US Army units deployed to Iraq did so with a set of non-lethal weapons intended for crowd control, area denial and clearance, and threat deterrence. The tools they took included rubber, stingball and flash-bang munitions, high-intensity lights and pepper spray.
Lt Gen William Wallace, commander of the US Army’s V Corps that spearheaded the assault on Baghdad, said on 7 May that troops were just beginning to employ their non-lethal gear. “Up to this point, there has been no real utility in using those type of items. But we are in the process now of moving them into areas largely under the control of our military police forces who are trained in their use,” Gen Wallace said.
It is understandable that US troops have not chosen non-lethal means over conventional lethal actions in Iraq so far because they have continued to be under direct attack, experts say. The US Army units involved in the 29-30 April shooting of protesters demonstrating against the US presence in Iraq said they were returning fire from the crowds.
Some say that future non-lethal capabilities might be just as effective in such situations while minimising the dangers to civilians. Within a year, systems that deliver entanglement devices and anti-traction materials, as well as an incapacitating 26w taser gun will be available to troops. The DoD’s Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is also developing directed-energy systems like the Active Denial System and a Pulse Energy Projectile that delivers a flash-bang effect at the speed of light from hundreds of metres away.
However, bringing new capabilities into service, particularly if they offer new uses in combat, will require development of doctrine, tactics, training and sustainment, said Russell Glenn, a senior analyst at RAND and member of an urban combat training team that worked with US forces before they deployed to Iraq. The capabilities should be approached from a “systems perspective” and are “something we need to get now” so that such issues can be worked out, Glenn said.
DoD policies have not kept up with the pace of developing capabilities, some officials said. Other analysts say that if chemical agents could legally be applied in combat, despite interpretations that the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits such use, they could offer a safer option to firing weapons in some circumstances. Chemical agents like pepper spray developed for riot control are used in peace support and law enforcement operations.
The DoD has reviewed research on calmative agents, but the capability is not mature enough to assure universal effects against people of all ages and levels of physical fitness, so is not being pursued at this time, a USMC spokesman, said.
Officials have great hope for the use of directed-energy weapons for both lethal and non-lethal effects in the future.
However, they say that questions must be resolved about whether weapons like high-power microwaves can cause unnecessary suffering or, when applied against military equipment, destroy civilian infrastructure.
The following are being studied or developed by the DoD.
· Running Gear Entanglement System: stops sea vessels by entangling the propellers;
· Mobility Denial System: delivers anti-traction material, comes in back-packable or vehicle-transportable dispensers;
· Clear A Space Device: produces flash-bang effect lasting as long as two minutes, intended to disorient and remove personnel from an enclosed area;
· Active Denial System: millimetre-wave weapon that heats the top layer of skin creating pain. It is intended for area denial and force protection;
· Acoustic Capabilities: commercial systems that develop directional beams delivering uncomfortable acoustics approaching painful levels;
· Unmanned Air Vehicles with Non-Lethal Payloads: carrying tear gas, pepper spray, odorants or dye;
· Pulsed Energy Projectile: delivers a flash-bang effect at the speed of light from hundreds of metres away. The system could be mounted on High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles or as a stand-alone system.
(Source: DoD’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate)