May 9, 2000
The involvement of US troops in peacekeeping has created a demand for non-lethal weapons. The non-lethal project office has been growing in size and budget while the rest of the military cuts back. The military insists that non-lethal is a misnomer, and that the term should properly be "less lethal" since they can cause death, they just don't do so as often. Even so, the military is concerned that the phrase "non-lethal" will produce a public image which the weapons cannot live up to. Army Materiel Command has created "non-lethal capability sets" which are prepositioned in strategic locations. Each set has enough gear for 200 troops, and includes 57 types of items ranging from riot batons and shields to non-lethal ammunition and pepper spray. The Marines already had 27 such sets, and the Army plans to buy five per year. Units in future battles need to be able to switch quickly between lethal and non-lethal modes, but non-lethal weapons are hard to employ. A soldier carrying one cannot normally carry a real weapon for self-defense due to
weight and space limits. This means reducing the conventional firepower of the unit by one rifle for each non-lethal weapon employed. The non-lethal weapon gunner then becomes virtually an unarmed man who must be protected by other soldiers, and must be kept in some position where the unit commander can call upon him to engage a particular target. This is a complicated situation, as the commander must spot the target and decide that the non-lethal weapon is the appropriate one to use. Such weapons can be used in one of two situations. In one case, the main body of the troops are armed with conventional weapons and are conducting some particular mission. The non-lethal weapon is used in low-intensity situations where actually killing one individual might trigger a mass violent reaction from a crowd. Troops defending a food warehouse, for example, do not want to fire into a gathering crowd, and might use a non-lethal weapon to discourage the key rabble rousers. In the other type of situation, most of the troops are fitted in riot gear (body armor, helmets, face shields, riot batons, and riot shields). In such situations until a few years ago, the unit commander had with him one or two snipers with rifles who might shoot (and probably kill) key individuals (those with weapons, those who appear to be orchestrating the riot). These key snipers can now be armed with non-lethal weapons (such as bean bags fired from shotguns). But the popular bean-bag round is hardly reliable. It has very poor accuracy beyond 15 feet and can be lethal as it has the force of a line-drive baseball. Six people have been killed by such rounds in the US and Canada since 1971, mostly when hit in the chest or head. Sheriff's and police are advised to fire the beanbags at the abdomen or lower back. New "sock" rounds trail a streamer to stabilize the projectile and increase the accuracy to 30 or 40 feet. Both rounds are hard to fire at moving targets, and can be dangerous if fired into crowds. Several new non-lethal weapons are in development and scheduled for release:
@ Bullet mine: basically a claymore mine that fires a barrage of rubber projectiles to a range of 30 meters. It is due to deploy in 2001.
@ 40mm crowd dispersal round: fires a wide pattern of rubber projectiles. To deploy in 2001.
@ Portable Vehicle Arresting Barrier: This is a perimeter security element that appears to be a speed bump, but deploys a net strong enough to stop a 7,000-pound vehicle moving at 40mph. Any vehicle stopped is wrapped up in the net, trapping the occupants inside. Scheduled to deploy late this year.
@ Ridged foam: quick aerosol foam that hardens on contact with the air. It is intended to block doorways, stop motor vehicles, or create barriers. It will be deployed in 2002.
@ Non-lethal 81mm mortar round: This is designed to provide long-range indirect fire support. The round would detonate overhead, scattering rubber pellets or beanbags into the crowd. It is not yet scheduled for production.
@ 66mm grenade launcher: A vehicle-mounted heavy weapon, this is an indirect-fire system that could fire a flash-bang grenade to explode over a crowd, or a pattern of rubber projectiles. This system has yet to be scheduled for production.
Many non-lethal weapons are already in service, including:
@ Slippery surface coatings designed to block crowds. These were first used in 1972.
@ Flash-bang grenades: intended to scare people, generally non-lethal unless in contact with a person. Can cause temporary vision and hearing loss.
@ Concussion grenades: cause shock and temporary deafness with their 160-decibel blast.
@ Acoustic Dazzler: causes 150-decibel sound for 45 seconds. This is more disorienting than the concussion grenade's single blast.
@ Aero-rubber rings fired from a grenade launcher, with an effective range of 40-50 meters.
@ Oleoresin Capsicum pepper balls fired by gas cartridges, has greater range than pepper spray.
@ Sponge Grenade, fired from a 40mm grenade launcher, a metal or plastic mass covered in front by a sponge to soften the impact. This is used by the Marines.
@ Rubber baton rounds: fired from various weapons, these can be used against massed crowds. The South Africans fired these from machineguns to break up large demonstrations.--Stephen V Cole