The non-lethal option

The start of a new year is a time to reflect on the past and resolve to do better in the future.  One area where the Pentagon must do better is ensuring our troops have the tools they need to meet the challenges they will face in defending our nation’s interests.  This means not only fielding capabilities in a timely manner but ensuring the Department of Defense develops and fields the right capabilities.

House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) has championed efforts to fix the costly and cumbersome defense acquisition process, which is often unresponsive to warfighter needs.  “Sometimes the Pentagon is penny-wise, pound-foolish… Sometimes their priorities are just plain wrong,” he has noted, citing Congress’ role in forcing DoD to procure systems like the Predator that were once seen as “counter-cultural” but are now considered success stories.

{mosads}Another capability often seen as counter-cultural but deserving of greater attention is non-lethal weapons.  Non-lethal weapons are a useful adjunct to, not a substitute for, lethal force.  They are intended to temporarily incapacitate personnel or disable materiel rather than to kill or destroy – effects that may seem counter-intuitive for a military called on to close with and defeat the enemy, but which can actually facilitate the achievement of military objectives. 

A modest program to develop non-lethal weapons has been funded by the Department of Defense for two decades.  It has enabled the joint development of advanced technologies, including non-lethal directed energy capabilities like the millimeter-wave Active Denial System, which can provide military commanders and troops in the field with critical tactical advantages.  These efforts align with DoD’s current emphasis on innovation and maintaining the U.S. technological edge.

But in recent years the HASC has questioned the Department’s commitment to fielding these capabilities, cautioning that proposed cuts to the DoD Non-Lethal Weapons Program may have “unintended or unforeseen impacts on contingency planning” and force DoD to rely “solely on lethal force” in circumstances where the use of such force might be counterproductive.

Why should Congress take a critical look at the Department’s non-lethal weapons funding plans and programs?  Because unlike many other capabilities, non-lethal weapons offer unique benefits.  For example:

·         Non-lethal weapons have utility across the full spectrum of operational contingencies.  They have proven their worth in counter-insurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and in counter-piracy missions on the high seas.  They can be used to isolate bad actors in a crowd or prevent loss of life during non-combatant evacuation operations.  In an age of hybrid warfare characterized as the “New Normal,” few weapons systems can claim such broad applicability to the kinds of traditional and irregular contingencies U.S. forces may confront in the future.

·         They align with the goals of U.S. military strategy and the imperative to limit civilian casualties – critical for ensuring mission success in complex urban environments.  Their use is a tangible reflection of American adherence to the Law of War and the principle of discrimination. 

·         Because of their reversible effects, non-lethal weapons provide important options and tactical flexibility.  They can shape the battlefield, respond to ambiguous threats, deny areas, and avoid collateral damage.  Moreover, the ability to disable materiel or infrastructure temporarily without destroying it can help avoid potentially significant reconstruction costs. 

·         Non-lethal weapons are relatively cheap.  Only a fraction of one percent of the defense budget goes to develop these technologies, but the return on investment is arguably much greater.  Their value in supporting U.S. strategic objectives and helping to meet mission requirements on the battlefield far outweighs their cost – hardly a trivial consideration in today’s fiscally constrained budget environment.

Since its establishment at congressional direction in 1996, the DoD Non-Lethal Weapons Program has enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Congress.  The HASC has repeatedly called for accelerating development of non-lethal capabilities, directing the military Services to integrate more fully non-lethal weapons into their force mix.  Nevertheless, report language in multiple National Defense Authorization Acts over the years suggests that the Department and the Services are retreating from the policy the HASC has long advocated.

As part of its oversight of the fiscal year 2017 budget request, Congress should carefully considerthe status and future course of the Department’s Non-Lethal Weapons program, how it fits into our overall military strategy, and the applicability of non-lethal systems to the kinds of contingency operations American forces will be called upon to support in the future.  

Given his long-standing interest in directed energy systems and other innovative responses to emerging challenges, Chairman Thornberry may find this is yet another example where Pentagon priorities may be penny-wise and pound-foolish, and where success for the warfighter may benefit from additional congressional oversight.

Trachtenberg is president of Shortwaver Consulting.  He is a former principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Policy and served as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee.  He has supported the work of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, but the views expressed here are his own.


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