Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

"Deconfusing" Lethal and Kinetic Terms

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

"Deconfusing" Lethal and Kinetic Terms

Article excerpt

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.


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. (4)

2. If it is desirable to differentiate between lethal, physically destructive actions and nonlethal actions, then lethal and nonlethal should be used. Lethal actions include the entire range of offensive military operations (including kinetic weapons and some nonkinetic weapons, as discussed above) designed to result in the destruction of the target. (5) Nonlethal actions include psychological operations, some elements of information operations, civil affairs operations, and some unconventional warfare or foreign internal defense activities, among others. Lethal and non-lethal can apply to actions, capabilities, or effects. It is commonly understood that one can use lethal force in a nonlethal manner. The fact that a lethal weapon can be used in a nonlethal way does not change its lethality. Conversely, it is possible to apply lethal force with an instrument (such as an entrenching tool) that is designed for nonlethal purposes. Since the definition of nonlethal weapons includes the statement that they are designed to "minimize fatalities," the potential to use nonlethal weapons in a lethal manner is understood.


As we attempt to describe our capabilities in the most clear, correct, and concise manner possible, we should ask, "What is the intent or purpose of the action?" If the intent is to influence an adversary through a combination of lethal and nonlethal means, it is not essential to describe whether the action or capability is kinetic or nonkinetic. In today's, and even in tomorrow's, operational environment, commanders will continue to determine objectives and decide how they want to achieve those objectives using lethal or nonlethal means. Will the commander tell his staff, "Don't kill them, but use some kinetics"? Or, conversely, "Kill the scoundrels, but don't use kinetics"? Doubtful--it makes little sense. How, then, does it help to have a list of capabilities categorized into kinetic and nonkinetic bins?

Clearly, our military language has room for colloquialisms. However, in formal writing or military orders, it is important to be clear, concise, and accurate. Therefore, when speaking of actions or effects, use the terms lethal and nonlethal. When describing weapons and ammunition classifications, continue to use the terms kinetic and nonkinetic. The proper use of terminology, including the preferred lethal and nonlethal over the less precise kinetic and nonkinetic, reduces the ambiguity in professional writing and, more importantly, helps "deconfuse" us as we attempt to describe the range of military actions and capabilities.


(1) See Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, November 30, 2004) for the definition of nonlethal weapons.

(2) U.S. Naval Academy, Fundamentals of Navy Weapon Systems, chapter 12, "Military Explosives."

(3) Without movement and mass, there is no kinetic energy ([E.sub.k] = 1/2 [mv.sup.2]). Projectiles, fragments, and particles have mass and can generate kinetic energy. Waves (for example, radar, microwave, sound) do not have mass and cannot generate kinetic energy. Photons (lasers) are in the middle; they are packets of electromagnetic radiation without mass, but they clearly deliver energy to the target and are technically kinetic.

(4) Nonkinetic does not imply nonlethal; obviously, directed energy, chemical, and biological weapons can be quite lethal. Also, kinetic would not equate to lethal; rubber bullets, for example, are nonlethal kinetic munitions.

(5) It is not necessary to kill a person for something to be considered lethal.

Lieutenant Colonel Karl E. Wingenbach, USA, is senior Joint Doctrine Developer in the Joint and allied Doctrine Division at the army Capabilities Integration Center. Colonel Donald G. Lisenbee, Jr., USA, is Chief of the Joint and army Concepts Division.

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