In 1995, U.S. troops protected United Nations forces withdrawing from Somalia by using nonlethal weapons to both subdue hostiles and prevent conflict escalation. In doing so, they exemplified both the value and viability of alternate, nonlethal options for the warfighter.
However, the most recent guidance from former Secretary of Defense James Mattis instead directs defense policymakers to adhere to traditional concepts of lethal effectiveness and efficiency as imperatives for weapons acquisition programs.
With lethality as the guiding principle, the policymaking community may overlook programs that produce highly effective, nonlethal tools that warfighters can employ to prevent conflicts and limit irreversible impacts. One such initiative, the joint nonlethal weapons program — under the Defense Department and administered by the Marine Corps — provides critical resources for the research, development, and production of nonlethal weapons. In doing so, the program presents the U.S. military and allied nations an opportunity to save lives and taxpayer money both at home and abroad by defusing flashpoints and preventing costly escalations. Unfortunately, overemphasis on “lethality” in defense acquisitions threatens the joint nonlethal weapons program.
With an explicit focus on developing and fielding nonlethal equipment, the program has been a backbone of Defense Department efforts from 1997 onwards to develop options designed to induce flight or incapacitate a target without lasting detrimental effect. Unlike traditional weapons platforms — whose lethal impact on targets form the basis of their rated effectiveness — nonlethal weapons provide the essence of “lethality;” that is, a means to achieve direct and efficient conflict resolution with minimal strategic or human risk. Accordingly, decision-makers should judge nonlethal weapons by a different metric.