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DoD Harnesses Technology in Search for Nonlethal Systems

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 22, 2004 – To win hearts and minds during 21st-century military operations, it will be essential for U.S. service members to have options other than the use of deadly force, a senior Defense Department official asserted.

"You don't want to go into another person's country with the only option being lethal force, because that will turn the populace against you," said Alan R. Shaffer, the director for plans and programs with DoD's Office of Defense Research and Engineering.

Accordingly, Shaffer said the department plans to stand up a new science and technology program to develop nonlethal methods that can be used to maintain order in civil-military and other operations.

The global war against terrorism, Shaffer pointed out, has highlighted the changing face of conflict in the new century. For example, he continued, U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq often find themselves trying to distinguish insurgents from "friendly" civilians.

Using lethal force, Shaffer said, can produce unintentional civilian casualties including children. Rather than firing bullets into an unruly crowd, he asked, might it be better to employ nonlethal means to restore order?

Consequently, Shaffer said DoD is working to develop nonlethal tools to "give our young troops -- as well as our policy and decision-makers" an option other than the use of deadly force.

One nonlethal tool under development, he said, is an "active-denial" microwave- like device that can be directed at a distance to heat up the moisture in a person's skin, causing an uncomfortable temperature increase that's envisioned to dissuade mob attacks.

"So, if a hostile crowd is moving toward you, you use the active-denial system (and) they will stop coming," Shaffer explained, noting researchers "have yet to find anybody" who will continue to move forward against the system.

"You get hit with the high-powered microwave and you run away," he asserted.

Another nonlethal system under development, Shaffer continued, is super-slick matting that can be placed around a building to help prevent terrorists from using trucks to breach security perimeters. Another innovation envisioned for crowd control, he added, uses a sticky foam substance that hardens.

Having nonlethal options, Shaffer pointed out, would have been useful when the destroyer USS Cole was attacked in port in Aden, Yemen, on Oct. 12, 2000, by terrorists in a bomb-laden boat. The bomb blew a hole in the ship's hull and killed 17 service members and injured 39.

The Cole incident represented a "horrible situation," Shaffer maintained, where the crew could "see something coming up to their ship and the only choices they had were to let this dinghy run into them or use lethal force against" an uncertain threat.

Employing an active-denial system like the heat-producing device likely would have prevented the terrorists from coming near the destroyer, Shaffer noted, while providing the Cole's crew enough time to size up the threat.

Shaffer said it's important to know that all nonlethal devices and materials are tested to ensure they don't do permanent damage.

"We don't win hearts and minds if we shoot a sticky foam or shoot a laser out on someone that buys you time and space, but blinds the target permanently or is toxic," he concluded.


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