Pentagon Deploys Non-Lethal Weapons
USA Today | July 25, 2005
WASHINGTON - For Col. Joe Anderson's soldiers in Mosul, the threat in 2003 was hostile crowds. Last year, Col. Ralph Baker's troops in Baghdad faced another recurring problem: suspicious cars and trucks careening toward their checkpoints. Today, both those threats have increased, and insurgent bombs have grown more powerful.
Unable to distinguish suicide bombers from wayward civilians, troops fire to protect themselves. They sometimes hit innocent Iraqis, which only fuels the insurgency against the U.S. coalition and fledgling Iraqi government.
If you "have no other option but brute force, you don't have a lot of options," Anderson says.
More than two years after the invasion of Iraq, Pentagon officials say they are speeding deployment of non-lethal weapons that give troops more choices. Iraq is becoming the proving ground for devices, some radically new, that can protect troops without harming the people they were sent to help.
Shooting at tires
The need for non-lethal options was shown again this spring, when U.S. troops protecting Baghdad's airport shot a car heading toward their checkpoint in the dark. It was carrying a freed Italian hostage, who was injured, and an Italian intelligence officer, who was killed. The incident damaged U.S. relations with Italy, a key ally in Iraq.
This month, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said too many innocent Iraqis were dying because U.S. troops shot in error. He called for a more "civilized" approach, such as shooting out tires.
"That's easier said than done," Anderson says. Bullets ricochet off the road or cars and kill or injure bystanders -- and they may not stop the vehicle before it gets too close.
Baker, who commanded a brigade of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, went on the Internet and ordered remote-controlled road spikes, which pop up and shred tires on command, because he was frustrated by the Pentagon's delay in supplying alternatives.
Reducing needless deaths "is absolutely essential to the long-term success of our political objectives over there," says Baker, stationed at the Pentagon.
Most Pentagon spending still goes toward improving ships, aircraft and other familiar weapons. But that's changing, says Benjamin Riley, chairman of the Combating Terrorism Technology Task Force set up by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Commanders in Iraq need technologies "that have not fallen in the traditional acquisition process."
Sue Payton, deputy undersecretary of Defense for advanced systems and concepts, says 75% of her department's $1.1 billion research budget was spent on developing traditional weapons. Now the focus has shifted to weapons to deal with urban combat in Iraq.
Contractors are under pressure to take non-lethal weapons from the laboratory into the field, says Mike Booen, vice president of directed energy weapons at Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson. "It's, 'I need what you have in 60 to 90 days,' or 'I need what you have in eight months,' as opposed to three or four years," he says.
In the field, in the works
Some of the new, non-lethal weapons are in Iraq, and more are coming in a matter of months, says Raymond Grundy, deputy director of the non-lethal weapons program of the Marine Corps, based in Quantico, Va. Among them:
*Nets that pop up remotely from the road and ensnare the wheels and suspensions of oncoming vehicles.
*Instant oil slicks that cause vehicles to skid and crash and pedestrians to fall down.
*Military paint-ball guns that coat windshields to blind drivers of oncoming cars. Some troops are trying small lasers to temporarily blind opponents in cars or on foot.
*Venom, a system of small mortar-like tubes that fire rounds that explode like fireworks at a range of up to 200 yards away. The pyrotechnics keep suspect vehicles or people away. Although the rounds are still in testing, the Marines have committed $14 million to buy 250 units.
The military hopes to develop guns that fire energy pulses that destroy ignitions or other critical components to cause a car or truck to stop. A prototype of such a system is probably five years off, Grundy says.
A ray gun closer to deployment is a millimeter-wave radar beam that causes fiery pain when it hits the skin.
The first working prototype on a custom Humvee truck, called the Active Denial System, will be unveiled this summer. The command in Iraq has asked the Pentagon for 14 more vehicles with millimeter-wave weapons, under a program called Project Sheriff, as soon as possible.
Payton says she's confident that the technology is safe and that there will be strict rules to avoid any chance the gun will be considered a torture instead of an alternative to gunfire.
Even so, Payton says, any ray gun that hits people is a concept that will stir public concern.
"The whole introduction of this could be misinterpreted. There could be disinformation about it," she says. To allay fears, she says, Arabic media will be among those invited to a public demonstration of the system in a few weeks.
Set phasers on stun?
The Army and Marines want to develop a gun that fires an adjustable beam of energy. For situations like Iraq, it could emit just enough energy to stop an oncoming vehicle. On the battlefield, powerful blasts could destroy the enemy.
Energy beams fire in a straight line and at long range, with no need for reloading, obvious advantages. The big unsolved problem: a strong, portable power source.
Someday, handheld ray guns could be available to infantry troops, but such Star Trek weapons are years, if not decades, away.
Riley says much research won't be done in time to help in Iraq. Among those showing promise: a laser that "sniffs" explosives at a distance and surveillance cameras that remember landscapes and "see" changes where bombs were planted.
Riley says development of non-traditional weapons will continue even when the Iraq war ends. "It's not just an immediate problem in Iraq," he says. "It's a long-term kind of threat."