July 3, 2020 —
Pentagon researchers are working on a weapon to temporarily disable everyone in a room with a TASER-like electric stun effect, making it safer for troops to clear buildings and reducing civilian casualties.
The device currently goes by the uninspired name of ‘Multi-Target HEMI System.’ HEMI is short for Human Electro‐Muscular Incapacitation, a technical term for TASERs and similar electric non-lethal weapons. It is being developed by the Pentagon’s Joint Intermediate Force Capabilities Office (JIFCO), formerly the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate.
“One of the DoD’s priorities is ‘Disable Individuals,’ the ability to reversibly render individuals ineffective or unable to perform in open and confined spaces,” David Law, Chief of JIFCO’s technology division, told me. “HEMI weapons are the only viable non-lethal “Disable” technologies under development by the JIFCO.”
Law says the device will hit everyone within at least a five-meter radius and may be used indoors or out.
Clearing rooms is one of the most dangerous tasks in the urban battlefield. Soldiers endlessly rehearse Battle Drill 6, the procedure for entering and clearing a room. It is a carefully-choreographed series of moves in which two soldiers enter almost simultaneously and third covers from the doorway, all simultaneously taking out targets.
Opponents must be neutralized as rapidly as possible. But at the same time, according to the Army manual: “All Soldiers engage enemy combatants with precision aimed fire and identify noncombatants to avoid collateral damage.”
Soldiers have a split second to decide whether each occupant of a room is combatant or civilian. Hesitation can mean a team member being killed or injured — or shooting a civilian.
“Despite attempts to empty cities of their residents, as in the battles for Aachen and Fallujah, there are always people that stay,” writes John Spencer, chair of Urban War Studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point, in a piece on Getting Beyond Door Kicking. “The urban battlefield will be full of civilians and soldiers should confront the challenge they pose to combat operations early in their training.”
A flashbang ‘stun grenade’ or ‘distraction device’ may give a momentary advantage when entering a room containing possible noncombatants or hostages. This tactic was made famous by the British SAS in the Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980. However, the stunning effects are brief and unreliable, and such devices can cause permanent injury or start fires.
JIFCO’s new device could disable everyone in the room for a prolonged period without the disadvantages of flashbangs.
Two lines of development feed into the Multi-Target HEMI System. One is to find a better kind of shock. The waveform, the rate at which the electric potential varies over time and the total electric charge, affects how safely and effectively it stuns. Axon introduced a new waveform for their X-26 model Taser that was significantly more effective than the previous M-26, but critics claimed it was more dangerous, noting that it delivered up to 135 microcoulombs of charge rather than the 70-120 microcoulombs of the M26.
Creating a waveform that is both safer and more effective means finding out more about the how they affect the nervous system.
“JIFCO’s main focus for HEMI from a bioeffects standpoint is to extend the duration and range of the counter-personnel incapacitating effect,” JIFCO Human Effects Scientist Dr. Shannon Foley said. “Investigation into mechanisms of effectiveness help to maximize the incapacitating effects by extending duration while simultaneously minimizing injury potential.”
Previous JIFCO research in this area has looked at ultrashort pulses which may disable for minutes rather than just seconds. And they are working to reduce the charge required, stunning with less than 50 microcoulombs.
JIFCO have worked with Applied Research Associates, Inc to build an ‘optimized HEMI waveform generator,’ a self-contained device no larger than an AA battery to drive a whole generation of new nonlethal weapons.
The second line of development is in what Law calls “new and advanced HEMI probe delivery and attachment methods.”
Electric stun weapons fire pairs of dart-like probes trailing wires to make an electrical circuit. TASER darts are barbed to ensure they remain embedded in clothing and do not pull free when the target falls over, but the barbs can get stuck in clothing and fail to penetrate far enough to make a good connection. JIFCO’s partners have developed new barbs inspired by porcupine quills, which are covered in scales so they penetrate easily but are difficult to dislodge.
In order to hit everyone in a room, the device likely will not shoot out wires in all directions, but will be guided by body heat or similar triggers. A similar concept, the ‘TASER Area Denial Device,’ which had up to twelve pairs of darts triggered by infra-red motion sensors, was explored back in the early 2000s but never fielded. The technology is now more mature.
Development of the Multi-Target HEMI System is in its early stages. Law believes it has great potential to save lives in future operations. It may also have the additional benefit of allowing targets to be captured alive, even those who would prefer to fight to the death. This could result in fewer ‘martyrs’ and more information being gathered.
Sometimes deadlier is not better, especially when there are civilians in the urban battle zone.
“The Joint Force needs more than the binary option of lethal force or no force in order to succeed across the full range of military operations,” says Law.