Friday, April 30, 2010

Non-Lethal Weapons: R&D a Matter of Deadly Importance

The upcoming troop offensive in Kandahar will play out similar to the recent Marja campaign but will likely be larger in scope. More insurgents are based in Kandahar and the U.S. is hoping for a greater contribution by Afghan forces than was made in Marja. As the Kandahar offensive draws closer, General McChrystal will likely “talk about operations in advance to try to scare off insurgents and convince the local population that their government and its allies are moving to increase security.” While potentially setting up coalition forces for attack and IED traps, this announcement strategy is calculated to reduce potential civilian casualties. This is in keeping with the general COIN principle, as elucidated in the Army’s FM 3-24, that new enemies are created when civilians are the victims of military operations.

The fact is that when troops are present in a war zone as they are in Afghanistan, civilians will occasionally be in the cross-fire. And when civilians are injured or killed, the reactionary anti-American sentiment that develops makes the greater war effort – sometimes described as a campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of Afghan citizens – far more difficult. In a recent episode, 5 Afghan civilians were killed and another 18 were wounded when American forces fired on a passenger bus which appeared to be approaching too fast to a military convoy and which coalition forces thought may contain explosives. The governor of Kandahar province openly questioned why the American troops could not have simply shot the tires to stop the approaching bus. However, shooting out tires or the engine block may be more difficult than generally presumed, especially when threats seem to appear suddenly and a split-second reaction is necessary to prevent soldiers’ deaths. Sadly, this was just one of many convoy or checkpoint shootings in recent months in which the victims were later determined to be entirely non-threatening.

The frequency of such incidents begs the question: can the U.S. forces employ a different tactical response to approaching vehicles that outwardly appear threatening? Despite our commitment to COIN principles that stress the need to protect civilians, it would be foolish to implement a policy that would urge our troops to withhold firing at or otherwise defending themselves from what their experience tells them are potential threats. However, it would be entirely reasonable for U.S. forces to employ weaponry that would stop a potential threat while preventing the unnecessary loss of life. That’s where non-lethal weapons come in.

The Defense Department has been researching such weapons since 1996 under the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program, under the auspices of the Marines. After a 2004 CFR task force report described the capabilities of non-lethal weapons, funding was increased to approximately $150 annually. While that may seem like a lot, when compared to the hundreds of billions spent by the Defense Department annually (much of it on R&D for conventional, lethal weapons), this is actually a paltry sum.

From what research we have, there are a host of weapons that could potentially be used to eliminate unnecessary casualties in the checkpoint or convoy setting. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute thinks radio frequency weapons that short circuit vehicle electronics, acoustic weapons, or flash weapons might be appropriate. Directed-energy weapons – which include lasers, particle beams, and sonic devices – can immobilize people or machines would be another option. The Defense Department budget should be adjusted to reflect the necessity of investigating such weaponry further, especially in light of our clear mandate to reduce civilian casualties as much as possible.

Some degree of adjustment may already be occurring. Earlier this month, the Marine Corps System Command awarded General Dynamics a $3 million contract to evaluate a non-lethal weapon system known as Medusa. The system equips grenade launchers with non-lethal munitions that temporarily incapacitate targets “through intense light, sound and pressure stimuli.” Also in April, Australian corporation Metal Storm received an approximately $1.5 million contract to develop weapons with the same functionality but which can be mounted on Humvees. Because these two weapons could be present alongside convoys or at checkpoints, they could afford military personnel the non-lethal means available in an instant that they so desperately require.

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