U.S. Troops Find New Uses for Non-Lethal Weaponry

By Kennedy, Harold | National Defense, March 2002 | Go to article overview

U.S. Troops Find New Uses for Non-Lethal Weaponry


Kennedy, Harold, National Defense


As the war on terrorism grinds on, U.S. military forces and civilian organizations are finding more and more uses for weapons that don't kill.

Marines guarding the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, for example, are equipped with non-lethal rounds for their 12 gauge shotguns to drive away unarmed rioters.

U.S. troops overseeing al Qaeda and Taliban detainees at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are training to use stingball grenades to put down a prison rebellion.

The Air Line Pilots Association International has called for the installation of stun guns as standard equipment in airline cockpits to thwart would-be hijackers with minimal risk to passengers.

The stun gun is only one of many non-lethal technologies that could be used against terrorists on airliners, Marine Col. George P. Fenton told National Defense magazine in a wide-ranging interview. Fenton is director of the Defense Department's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, which is headquartered at the Marine Base at Quantico, Va., just outside of Washington, D.C.

Some technologies, "predominantly available off the shelf," could be made available in the near term, Fenton said. These include pepper spray, slippery foam and entanglement nets. Other concepts might take longer-three years or more-he said.

For example, a pilot-activated passenger-immobilization system could be developed to incapacitate everybody in the passenger compartment, Fenton said. However, such a system has some risks associated with it, he warned.

For one thing, Fenton said, "chemical incapacitants or immobilizers are not instantaneous." They could take 60 seconds or so to work, and during that time, a terrorist or group of terrorists might be able to do considerable damage.

Also, the infirm--babies, elderly or seriously ill--could be injured permanently or even killed. The policy and legal implications of these risks need further study, Fenton said.

Confusion Abounds

There is, in general, a good deal of confusion about non-lethal weapons, Fenton noted. "People don't understand what they are," he said. "If I had my way, I'd change the name."

It is important to realize that non-lethal weapons can be hazardous to your health, Fenton said. Any weapon that uses force to make you change your behavior--as non-lethal systems do--can injure, even kill you, unintentionally, he warned. "I can hurt you with water."

The Defense Department, he explained, defines non-lethal weapons as those "explicitly designed and primarily employed to incapacitate personnel or materiel, while minimizing fatalities and permanent injury to personnel and undesired damage to property and the environment."

Since ancient times, military forces always have had some non-lethal capabilities, such as use of billy clubs, rifle butts and--in recent decades--tear gas. But all too often, military options in crowd control turned quickly to live fire, Fenton said.

The Pentagon's interest in non-lethal weapons increased sharply in 1995, when U.S. forces helped United Nations troops withdraw from Somalia. Their orders were to do this with a minimum of military and civilian casualties. But they had few non-lethal weapons at the time.

Once, in Mogadishu, "a car blew through a UN checkpoint, ignoring all signals to stop," Fenton said. "The guards opened fire, killing all of the occupants. When they opened the car door, they found a Somali family--father, mother and children."

To minimize such incidents, Marine reservists, who also happened to be Los Angeles police officers, suggested that U.S. military forces try using of the kinds of non-lethal technologies employed for years by domestic law enforcement agencies.

Then-Marine Lt. Gen, Anthony Zinni, who was charged with protecting the withdrawal, sought--and received--a quick response to acquire and deploy such technology in Mogadishu, but it received little use. …

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