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News | Oct. 20, 2021

Marine Bangs Drum for Investing in Nonlethal Weapons

By John Harper

Enhancing “lethality” has become a buzzword at the Pentagon and a mantra among force modernizers as the U.S. military gears up for great power competition. But the Defense Department needs to invest more in nonlethal capabilities to expand the range of options for commanders and troops when killing people isn’t the best course of action, the director of the Joint Intermediate Force Capabilities Office said Oct. 20.

Adversaries such as China and Russia are beating the United States in the “gray zone,” a phase of competition below the threshold of war, Marine Col. Wendell Leimbach Jr. said at the Future Force Capabilities Conference and Exhibition in Columbus, Georgia, which is hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association. That includes deploying paramilitary forces in places like Eastern Europe and the South China Sea.

Leimbach used a sports analogy to describe the current geopolitical situation.

“Our forces are prepared for the big fight. We're getting ready for the NFL football game and … the Super Bowl. But our adversaries are playing soccer and they're scoring at will, and we don't have people on the field,” he said.

Having more nonlethal weapons would enable the U.S. military to take effective action against adversaries without starting a war, damaging important infrastructure, or firing on civilians who may be impeding or harassing U.S. forces, he said.

“Remember, this is a Marine tanker loving lethality, loving shooting holes at things a mile away,” Leimbach said, referring to himself. “But we’ve got to stop thinking about just attrition and lethality-exchange ratios. We've got to start thinking about how are we going to … effectively compete across that entire continuum” of competition. “We need to get some more intermediate force capability, specifically nonlethal weapons technology.”

Next-generation nonlethal systems that the Joint Intermediate Force Capabilities Office is working on include a kit for the common remotely operated weapon station that could include a green dazzling laser, a bright white light and/or an acoustic device.

“Then anybody that's got a CROWS weapon station has an intermediate force capability and you're not held captive to the kids throwing rocks” whom U.S. forces wouldn’t want to kill, he said.

An 81mm flashbang munition will soon go into production for the Marine Corps. The system is a mortar that fires and launches flashbang munitions at long range and is intended to be able to deny terrain or suppress military or civilian personnel without causing casualties, he explained.

“If you have an adversary … that are using critical infrastructure in order to facilitate their base of operations, or to prevent your maneuver, you could use this capability to suppress and/or deny that to them without actually destroying it,” Leimbach said.

Other next-gen technologies that his office is eyeing include: a dazzling, “eye-safe” long-range laser system that could emit a beam of light about 8 feet in diameter as far out as 3,300 feet and be capable of “consuming” the entire cockpit of a boat or the interior of a vehicle; remotely deployed vehicle stopping nets; pre-emplaced vehicle stoppers; and tetherless human electro-muscular incapacitation, according to his slide presentation.

Another technology that Leimbach highlighted include millimeter wave active denial systems. “It would feel like you're standing in a blast furnace as long as the energy was on, and as soon as they turned it off it, would stop,” he said.

“It is millimeter waves, not microwaves, so we're not cooking” people, he noted.

Leimbach said he has experienced the effects of this type of capability at a range of a little less than 2,000 feet. The feeling was “highly unpleasant” and such a capability would be “highly effective in getting individuals to stop what they're doing,” he added. Prototypes already exist, and Leimbach’s office is supporting other Defense Department components that are working on the technology.

The technology is not new. The Defense Department ran extensive experiments on the active denial system at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom and got as far as mounting the a millimeter wave emitting dish on a Humvee, but it never became a program of record.

Leimbach said high-powered microwaves that could stop ships or vehicles by zapping and disabling their motors are also of interest and are being developed for the Coast Guard for drug interdiction missions. Such systems could also be useful for the Navy if they wanted to incapacitate Iranian fast boats that harass U.S. vessels near the Strait of Hormuz, for example, he said.

“We can shut down their motors, get inside their heads, make them think they've got a maintenance issue,” he said. A vehicle-based prototype has been developed for “special customers,” he said.

However, Leimbach has struggled to get funding to get these types of technologies into programs of record at the Defense Department and into production.

“I've got to continue to beat the drum and try to get folks to appreciate the utility of these tools,” he said.