Next-generation non-lethal technologies

State-of-the-art non-lethal weapons, munitions, and devices are produced as part of the US Department of Defense's Non-Lethal Weapons Program.
14 September 2016
David Law

The US Department of Defense (DoD) defines non-lethal weapons (NLWs) as weapons, devices, and munitions that are explicitly designed—and primarily employed—to immediately incapacitate targeted personnel or materiel, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property in the target area or environment. In 1996, the DoD established an Executive Agent for the DOD's NLW Program, and the DoD Directive 3000.03E1 defines the policies and responsibilities for the development and use of NLWs. In this document the Commandant of the Marine Corps is also designated as the DoD NLW Executive Agent (i.e., with the responsibility to serve as the DoD focal point on all matters relating to NLWs). An important component of this responsibility is control over the DoD's NLW technology development strategy and investment in promising technologies that will enable advanced non-lethal capabilities to support warfighters in future operating environments.2

NLWs are designed and used to achieve military objectives, while simultaneously minimizing human casualties and collateral damage to property and equipment. In addition, these weapons can help to clarify the intent of an adversary and they allow a commander to elevate/decrease his response to a suspected target as a situation evolves. NLWs can thus be used to help fill the gap between ‘shout and shoot’ (often referred to as the escalation of force continuum). The escalation of force can be categorized as four separate actions. The first—detect—is the ability to learn whether a potential belligerent, vehicle, or vessel is hostile. The second action—delay—is the ability to stop/repel/move the potential belligerent, vehicle, or vessel from reaching or moving out of a monitored/secured area. Next—deny—is the ability to stop/keep out the potential belligerent, vehicle, or vessel from reaching a monitored/secured area. In the last step—defeat—the potential belligerent, vehicle, or vessel is incapacitated (with minimal harm to innocent civilians and minimal collateral damage to surrounding areas). This incapacitation can take a variety of forms, from temporary suppression to temporary disablement of the potential belligerent, vehicle, or vessel. These ‘incapacitating’ NLWs range from simple, commercially available items (e.g., sock rounds, pepper spray, and entangling devices) to directed-energy systems that provide non-lethal counter-materiel and counter-personnel effects at distances greater than the range of small arms.

We have recently presented3 an overview of the work of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD), which was established to support the DoD NLW Executive Agent in the day-to-day management of the NLW program. In this paper, we show how NLWs can be used to support both the missions of the DoD and Homeland Defense. We also identify state-of-the-art (i.e., next-generation) NLW technologies that may be applicable to other defense and security missions. Lastly, we outline some of the challenges in the development and application of these next-generation NLWs.

The JNLWD operates in collaboration with many partners. The most notable are the six voting members of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program (JNLWP). These members are points of contact within the four services (i.e., the US Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, and Army) and from the US Coast Guard and Special Operations Command. The JNLWP (see Figure 1) also includes a number of non-voting members and NLW technology development partners who have a strong interest in advancing (and using) next-generation NLWs. Since the JNLWD was established in 1997, one of its key roles has been to assist the JNLWP's voting members in their development of next-generation NLWs. The JNLWD also helps to ensure that less-lethal application and force protection needs (current and future) are met, across the full spectrum of conflicts and range of military operations.

Figure 1. (a) Organizational chart for the US Department of Defense (DoD) Non-Lethal Weapons Program. CMC: Commandant of Marine Corps. DC PP&O: Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations. S&T: Science and technology. R&D: Research and development. RDT&E: Research, development, test, and evaluation. O&M: Operations and maintenance. (b) Voting and key non-voting members of the JNLWP. SOCOM: Special Operations Command.

As a result of the JNLWP activities, the inventory of NLWs available to US forces continues to increase. To date, about 50 NLWs, munitions, and devices are available. These weapons include optical distractors or ‘dazzling lasers,’ acoustic hailing devices (which produce focused, directional sound waves with pre-programmed foreign phrases to deter individuals), and vehicle-entangling nets that can be deployed to puncture and lock up the front tires of an approaching vehicle (and thus give warfighters more time to better and safely approach a vehicle to ascertain the driver's intent). In addition, fielded NLWs include flashbang munitions, blunt impact munitions, and human electromuscular incapacitation munitions. Some key fielded NLWs are shown in Figure 2, but most of these are relatively ‘low-tech’ in nature (i.e., they provide a limited range and duration of effect). Even fewer NLWs can be considered as non-lethal (NL) directed-energy weapons (DEWs).

Figure 2. Examples of non-lethal (NL) weapons currently in use for defense and security situations.

In our recent presentation,3 we described updates to recent NL-DEW technology development efforts that have been funded by the JNLWD. These include updates to next-generation active denial technologies (95GHz NL counter-personnel DEWs) and to long-range radio-frequency high-power microwave vehicle/vessel stopping systems (NL counter-materiel DEWs). It has been hypothesized that this specific non-lethal technology area has the potential to best address (partially or fully mitigate) many of the desired next-generation NLW mission gaps. The strength of DEWs is the ability to provide increased range capabilities, combined with the ability to control the effects (e.g., non-lethal destructive, neutralization, and/or disruptive effects) of the directed energy, with a high degree of precision. This means that NL-DEWs often provide desired non-lethal effects over an expanded range window (known as its ‘envelope’), i.e., the desired effects are provided safely at much shorter (minimum/safe) range and at a much longer (maximum/effective) range. Achieving this kind of increase to a weapon's useful range envelope is critical for mitigating often-critical portions of the current non-lethal capability challenges. Therefore, one of the more important NL-DEW goals is to make them safe at both the muzzle and at much longer ranges. This means that NL-DEWs can outperform the more traditional ‘kinetic’ weapons, munitions, and projectiles.

Another technology development thrust area for the JNLWD is the development of NL-DEW systems, subsystems, and weapon components that provide a much smaller overall system size, weight, power consumption, and thermal management (cooling) capability, as well as a reduction in the overall system cost (SWAP/C2). The JNLWD have several ongoing science and technology research efforts dedicated to minimizing SWAP/C2 of the key NL-DEW subsystems and components, such as the development of compact prime-power systems, compact radio frequency–high power microwave antenna systems, advanced thermal management systems, and next-generation (higher power) NL-DEW sources. The JNLWD is also funding next-generation NL-DEW (fully instrumented human replicant) test targets to reduce the time required to complete human effects risk characterization studies and to reduce the cost of testing these next-generation weapons systems.

In summary, we have provided an overview of the activities of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate. This work is conducted as part of the Department of Defense's Non-Lethal Weapons Program and involves the development of next-generation technologies that can be used in military objectives where it is important to minimize human casualties and collateral damage to property and equipment. There are currently about 50 different NLWs, munitions, and devices available for use in defense and security situations. We are currently in the process of developing several next-generation NLW science and technology prototypes.

David Law
Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD)
US Department of Defense
Quantico, VA

David Law is the technology division chief and chief scientist at the JNLWD, where he serves as the senior technical advisor to the director on matters related to NLW technologies and NLW technology development.

1. US Department of Defense direction 3000.03E (25 April 2013): DoD executive agent for non-lethal weapons (NLW), and NLW policy. Accessed 1 July 2016.
2. US Department of Defense: Quadrennial defense review 2014. Accessed 1 July 2016.
3. D. B. Law, Non-lethal technologies: state of the art and challenges for the future, Proc. SPIE 9825, p. 982502, 2016. doi:10.1117/12.2230590
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