Options 'between a bullhorn and a bullet' abound at Land Combat Expo
HEIDELBERG, Germany — Compared with the evolution of conventional weapons from sharp sticks to big bombs, a new generation of nonlethal weapons is rapidly approaching the gee-whiz factor of fantasy.
Imagine a high-pitched sound so focused and shrill that it will make an insurgent sniper do anything to escape it, including exiting the building where he’s shooting at American soldiers. Imagine a goo so slippery that, sprayed on a bridge, no vehicle can cross — sparing a commander the strategic no-win of blowing it up to deny the enemy.
Imagine lasers so powerful and so precisely targeted they can stop a vehicle by boring into the dashboard. Imagine a silent, invisible beam of directed energy that disperses rioters by exciting water molecules on a layer of skin 1/64th of an inch deep.
“It causes a sensation as intense as being burned,” said Air Force Maj. Troy Roberts of what he calls “almost a ‘Star Trek’ phaser-type of technology.”
Like Capt. James T. Kirk’s phaser, Active Denial Systems can be set low enough to cause severe pain, but no injuries, at ranges greater than small arms, said Roberts, capabilities and concepts officer for the Department of Defense’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate.
Mention “nonlethal weapon,” and most people think of rubber bullets for conventional arms and tear gas, said Roberts. In reality, it’s the gee-whiz side of the military, with its advocates this week at U.S. Army Europe’s Land Combat Expo at Patrick Henry Village predicting much broader acceptance over the next two years.
All of these “futuristic” nonlethal weapons exist and are largely practical and perfected, though there is no single system that’s the perfect nonlethal weapon, said Eric Damm, a retired Marine who’s the nonlethal weapons engagement officer for U.S. European Command.
But there are combinations that cover most needs, Damm added.
EUCOM officials started an assessment — expected to be finished later this year — of nonlethal needs, Damm said. U.S. military services have well-developed nonlethal capabilities, such as pepper-ball guns that fire pepper spray and mark agitators, he said. The goal now is to integrate those capabilities at the EUCOM level.
There are complications and dichotomies.
In an era when Humvees basically are weapons platforms for everything from heavy machine guns to flare launchers, does a soldier have a place to put another weapon?
“Operators told us, ‘No more stuff!’” Damm said.
But nonlethal weapons choices on a mission may have prevented some riots and demonstrations in Iraq from escalating, he said.
The idea is “to give soldiers something between a bullhorn and a bullet,” Roberts said.
“Nonlethal” is a concept, not a certainty. Many of the paintball-like weapons, as well as beanbags and rubber bullets with 500-foot-per-second velocity, are lethal at close range.
But more and more, directed beams of hyper light and sound are replacing flying rounds.
The long-range acoustic device, or LRAD, can target narrow sound beams at excruciating decibel levels, but below the threshold of hearing damage, said Ryk Williams, LRAD project manager for Topsham, Maine-based American Technology Corp.
During an LRAD demonstration Friday, the “target” — Sgt. Paul Meyer — was wearing Kevlar, with ear protection, while sitting inside a Humvee with the engine running. “And I’m slightly deaf from being in Iraq,” said Meyer, with the 529th Military Police Company. “With all that, the half-second of LRAD sound blast “still was worse than fingernails across a blackboard. I was cringing inside that Humvee.
“I’ve seen it bring soldiers to their knees.”
When the LRAD isn’t taking the starch out of miscreants, it can broadcast messages, when teamed with a language translator, in 50 languages up to 1,500 yards, Williams said.