PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. – Think of it as a super-charged paintball gun. That’s what some soldiers in Iraq are toting these days to deal with troublemakers on the streets of Baghdad. But there’s nothing fun about being on the receiving end of the FN 303 Less Lethal System. The semi-automatic launcher shoots a .68 caliber projectile at 300 feet per second using compressed air. The fin-stabilized projectiles have an effective range out to 100 meters.
It’s not designed to kill, but it packs a potent sting. The intent, Army officials say, is to give soldiers an option other than deadly ammo for deterring instigators from causing civil unrest.
Army instructors at the Non Lethal Scalable Effects Center at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., offer training on the 303, which is made by FNH USA, as do Marine Corps instructors at Leonard Wood’s Inter-service Nonlethal Individual Weapons Instructor Course.
The Army has been using the 303 in Iraq for about three years, mainly for military police. But lately, infantry units are carrying it, too, in addition to their M4s and M16s.
“Our unit is using them especially on cars that get too close to our convoys,” a soldier with the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team told Army Times. The soldier preferred that his name not be published.
The 172nd’s 12-month deployment was extended in August to help quell increased violence in Baghdad. Elements of the highly mobile Stryker brigade were then sent to Iraq’s strife-torn capital.
“We were not using [the 303] in Mosul,” the soldier noted. “Only since we arrived in Baghdad were they issued to the squads.”
Just one or two soldiers out of a nine-man squad are carrying 303s. Still, some soldiers expressed concern that using a nonlethal weapon can limit a unit’s capabilities in an area where anything can happen at any time.
Another soldier, who also chose not to be identified, said he “was taught that the primary reason for employing this weapon system was to combat the rock throwers in Sadr City.” But he said most rock-throwers are kids who lob stones at passing American vehicles about 10 feet, a distance the soldier said can make the 303 lethal if the projectile strikes the target’s head.
“A better idea is the Mossberg 12-gauge [shotgun] for two reasons — you can a load a nonlethal round first up by lethal rounds, so that you can shoot a nonlethal and then immediately follow up with double 0 or a slug” if necessary, the soldier said. “Plus, if you can’t use lethal means, at least you are giving the impression that you have control of a lethal weapon.”
Army officials would not comment on the specific tactics soldiers are using to employ the 303.
Col. John Koster, project manager for Close Combat Systems, said the 303 is mainly being used by MPs, but “we are starting to look at more of a tactical scenario.”
FNH USA officials said the intent behind the 303 is to give soldiers a nonlethal option to use before going straight to deadly force. It’s designed to allow troops to “get outside the rock-throwing range and Molotov cocktail range and still employ the system,” said D.T. Thornburg, director of military programs and integration for FNH USA.
Thornburg served 13 years on active duty with the Marine Corps and is a master sergeant in the Maine Reserve. He also recently spent nine months in Iraq, working as a protective services contractor for the State Department.
He did not use the 303 in Iraq but knows that in many cases, U.S. troops armed with M16s and crew-served weapons can do nothing to deter a violent crowd.
“A lot of times, if you point a rifle or pistol at them, they know you are not going to fire into a crowd,” he said.
Thornburg said he wasn’t sure how many 303s are in use in Iraq but said that this year, FNH had shipped about 1,000 of them to Iraq. The 303 is not yet an official Army weapon, so individual units are ordering them directly from FNH.
One of the soldiers from the 172nd acknowledged that “every [squad] member also has an M4, but depending on the mission, it may or may not be immediately available to his discretion.”
Soldiers are carrying the 303 as a stand-alone weapon, and at times, mounting them beneath the M4 in the same way a M203 grenade launcher is mounted. That way, a soldier can decide to fire a lethal round or a nonlethal one by simply picking which trigger to pull.
The 303 is equipped with a 15-round magazine and can fire projectiles designed purely for impact trauma or those laced with Oleoresin capsicum “[pepper] concentrate,” which not only hurts when it hits, but also causes a severe burning sensation to the skin.
It also fires paint-filled projectiles intended for marking instigators in a crowd so soldiers can clearly identify against whom to use deadly force if necessary.
To Thornburg, the 303 could eliminate the time soldiers have to spend shouting to one another, “‘Do you see him?! Does he have a weapon?!’ — All that is wasted time unless you have another means,” he said.
“If there is a vehicle or people moving towards friendly forces, and you engage them with a nonlethal weapon and they have articulated their intent that they are going to take the pain and close with you, this person has been marked so he can be effectively engaged instead of having to yell out, ‘It’s the guy in the black coat.’”
The Army hopes to bring the FN 303 into the service’s inventory by the end of this year, Koster said, adding that The Infantry Center at Fort Benning, Ga., is looking at different scenarios in which the weapon could be employed.
But those soldiers from the 172nd aren’t convinced that an infantry unit is a good place for the 303.
“There is no reason to be completely up in arms because lethal means are still available, but to me, this is still unacceptable,” one of the soldiers said. “My comrades and I agree that two sides could argue the pros and cons on and on, but the bottom line is, at this point in this conflict or war ... there are serious issues with the equation of winning the support of the people of Iraq.
“We don’t know what to say is the right thing to do so long as leaving is not an option. But we know for sure that paintball guns, attached to an M4 or not, is not the answer to quelling sectarian violence.”
Thornburg said soldiers should never be in a situation in which they don’t have lethal force available to take it to the next level.
“Whether he realizes it or not, it’s a far-reaching decision if a soldier or operator engages someone who is not presenting a lethal threat,” he said.
Political and social ramifications aside — “when you do harm, whether you are justified or not, it stays with you,” Thornburg said. “This is another step in the escalation of force that a soldier does not have to seek permission to use. He doesn’t have to hesitate any more than he would have to hesitate to shout at someone.”