"Deconfusing" Lethal and Kinetic Terms

By Wingenbach, Karl E.; Lisenbee, Donald G., Jr. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2007 | Go to article overview

"Deconfusing" Lethal and Kinetic Terms


Wingenbach, Karl E., Lisenbee, Donald G., Jr., Joint Force Quarterly


It is time to "deconfuse" ourselves concerning the words lethal and kinetic. The joint force--in both its doctrine and concepts communities--must not only adopt standard definitions and usages of these terms but also achieve a common understanding of the ideas behind the terms. As the joint force continues to advance its doctrinal and conceptual language beyond today's environment, we find ourselves searching for words to describe the ideas, actions, and consequences necessary for complex operations where both lethal and nonlethal methods must be skillfully intertwined.

The use of the words kinetic and nonkinetic has proliferated beyond the merely colloquial into formal concepts and doctrinal literature. Unfortunately, use of these terms has been inconsistent and ill defined without a proper foundation built on Defense Department usage.

A standard dictionary defines kinetic as "of, relating to, or produced by motion." Our military will often redefine words to provide clarity or specificity to our usage; we make certain words part of our jargon. Common examples include "operation" or "maneuver." These definitions, however, rarely contradict accepted usage. First used as shorthand for any bomb or bullet, the use of "kinetic" evolved, somewhat logically, to mean any lethal action. However, the converse, "nonkinetic," does not follow the same logic. Nonkinetic denotes inaction or lack of motion. Clearly, this is not the intent of those who would classify, for example, psychological operations as nonkinetic. There is a great deal of action, motion, and effort to the deliberate, successful use of psychological operations against an adversary. Our use of the term nonkinetic is more likely an attempt to describe actions that do not intentionally or normally have lethal consequences. The imprecision that has evolved is confusing and not helpful to military art.

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Kinetic and nonkinetic are not good replacements for words describing and differentiating lethal and nonlethal actions. We should discontinue the indiscriminate use of the word nonkinetic when we really mean nonlethal. Lethal and nonlethal are clearly defined, objectively understood terms. (1) It is generally understood what is meant by application or use of lethal force; it is a phrase that has specific legal implications in the military and in law enforcement. Lethal weapons can have both kinetic and nonkinetic properties. Moreover, kinetic energy weapons are not necessarily lethal (for example, a rubber bullet). Correct usage can be determined by a simple two-part test:

1. If it is desirable to differentiate between kinetic energy or explosive weapons and those that can disrupt, degrade, or disable without a physically destructive effect, then kinetic and nonkinetic can be used as shorthand for kinetic energy and nonkinetic energy weapons. Weapons are classified based on the source of energy that the weapon delivers to a target or the method of lethality. This point deserves elaboration; there are families of weapons: (2)

* kinetic energy (bullets, sabots)

* potential energy (grenades, bombs, nuclear weapons)

* directed energy (lasers, particle beams, high-power microwave)

* chemical (not to be confused with chemical explosives, which are part of the potential energy family)

* biological.

So nonkinetic would include everything except kinetic energy weapons. There is little doubt, though, that the users of nonkinetic understand that meaning. The use of the word kinetic when referring to weapons could apply to potential energy weapons because they have kinetic terminal properties (that is, the blast creates fragments with kinetic energy). Also, some directed energy weapons, such as lasers and particle beams, deliver kinetic energy to a target and have physically destructive effects, so they could be considered kinetic. (3) Therefore, it is reasonable to band kinetic energy, potential energy, and some directed energy weapons together and call everything else nonkinetic. …

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