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Nonlethal Weapons: An Overlooked, Undervalued Asset

Jan. 28, 2013 - 01:53PM   |  
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Despite the uncertainty over “sequestration,” which would trigger major government spending cuts, U.S. Defense Department budgets are in decline and weapon programs are at risk. In the competition for scarce resources, the advantage goes to those systems that are cost-effective, support war-fighter needs, fill critical capability gaps, respond to the requirements of national military strategy, and demonstrate a strategic return on investment that exceeds their monetary cost.

One over-looked, effective capability is nonlethal weapons.

Non-lethal systems are intended to have temporary, reversible effects on personnel and materiel. They incapacitate and disable without killing or destroying.

The notion of nonlethality may seem counterintuitive for a military understandably focused on closing with and killing the enemy. But as experience in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated, the accidental killing of non-combatants can hinder broader tactical and strategic goals and the fostering of strategic partnerships. Accidents happen. But it’s tough to build a relationship of trust when you are killing the people who are supposed to trust you.

Our modest investment in non-lethal weaponry pays significant dividends. For example: They support U.S. military strategy, which calls for flexible and adaptable capabilities across the full range of military operations, including counterterrorism, counterpiracy, stability and humanitarian assistance operations, and countering WMDs.

The value of nonlethals in limiting civilian casualties has been proved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on the high seas, where they have prevented hijackings without loss of life.

The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) explicitly referred to their utility for defeating terrorist networks and countering WMD. The next QDR should acknowledge their applicability across the full spectrum of traditional, unconventional and asymmetrical threats.

Their use in complex environments creates decision space and additional flexibility to assess the situation and reduce the risk of actions that carry unintended consequences. Several combatant commanders have put nonlethal weapons on their “Integrated Priority List” of essential capabilities because they address important tactical and operational needs.

Future battlefields are increasingly likely to be densely populated urban areas where combatants mingle among the civilian population. As an adjunct to lethal force, non-lethal weapons can serve as a force enabler, helping to isolate and discriminate between the bad guys and the good guys.

They can provide critical defensive capabilities in volatile environments. Promising directed energy technologies, such as the Active Denial System, could help disperse unruly crowds and prove valuable for protecting U.S. facilities abroad.

As the Accountability Review Board assessing the Benghazi tragedy concluded, “the lack of non-lethal crowd control options … precluded a more vigorous defense” of the consulate.

The board noted, “There have been technological advancements in non-lethal deterrents, and the State Department should ensure it rapidly and routinely identifies and procures additional options for non-lethal deterrents in high-risk, high-threat posts.”

They can help mitigate the expense of postconflict reconstruction, which in Afghanistan alone has cost the U.S. taxpayer billions of dollars. By temporarily disabling rather than destroying critical infrastructure, previous functions can be restored at much less expense.

And investment in nonlethal technology is relatively minimal. The cost of the DoD Non-Lethal Weapons Program, including joint and service-specific efforts, is only about $130 million annually, a tiny fraction of what is spent on developing and fielding lethal weapons.

Integrating nonlethal weapons into the family of capabilities available to the war fighter makes sense strategically, tactically and operationally. The development of scalable, nonlethal capabilities will further expand their usefulness in diverse operating environments.

Despite their numerous advantages, training and equipping efforts are deficient, and senior-level attention to these capabilities is lacking as they often compete with higher priority, more costly weapons. In the current fiscal climate, this competition will get more intense. Therefore, understanding and communicating the value that nonlethals offer is imperative.

We ask much of our men and women in uniform. We should not ask them to deploy without the full suite of capabilities necessary to help them accomplish their mission. Nor should we put them in harm’s way absent the tools to defend themselves without placing innocent lives in jeopardy.

Arguably, no other capability is as relevant across the range of military operations with the potential for significant strategic payoffs that maximize opportunities for mission accomplishment at minimal cost.

It’s time to get serious about non-lethal weapons and the value they provide.


By David J. Trachtenberg is president and CEO of Shortwaver Consulting, Burke, Va., and former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security policy. He has consulted for the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate. The views expressed here are his own.

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