The phrase nonlethal weapons (NLW) often brings to mind capabilities such as bean bags, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and electric stun guns. These capabilities are used domestically by law enforcement and by the military primarily for protection and security missions. Nonlethal weapons technology, however, has advanced significantly over the past 20 years. Technological advancements, including the development of prototype-directed energy capabilities, could provide a variety of counterpersonnel and countermateriel effects without destruction. Could this new generation of capabilities provide senior leaders and operational commanders intermediate force options that support the full spectrum of military objectives? If so, how do they fit in the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) focus on increased lethality?
During the 1990s, interest in NLW grew from then–U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Anthony Zinni’s efforts to make them available during operations in Somalia for the withdrawal of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping troops in Operation United Shield. The situation was complex; the availability of NLW allowed the troops to make clear to local civilians that UN forces would be firm in maintaining order and would apply minimal force as required. Subsequently, Congress directed the DoD to establish centralized responsibility for the development of NLW technology, leading to the designation of the commandant of the Marine Corps as the DoD NLW executive agent as well as the publication of a DoD NLW policy directive.