Home Use of Nonlethal Weapons as Enablers in Military Ops

Use of Nonlethal Weapons as Enablers in Military Ops

Contemporary military operations are unlike previous conventional wars wherein   victory or defeat  was measured in purely military terms. Today’s wars are mostly irregular conflicts fought not against countries but in complex environments against terrorists and extremists who are indistinguishable from the local civilian population, often in a deliberate attempt to protect  themselves and to maximise propaganda opportunities from civilian casualties.   The wars of the future will probably see the military forces involved in a wide spectrum   of contingencies ranging from traditional to irregular warfare where lethal firepower or threat of its use may not be the ideal solution. The relevance of “winning hearts and minds” (WHAM) is now understood at all levels. Non-lethal weapons can thus play a significant and important role in accomplishing this and helping to achieve mission success.

Non- Lethal weapons are devices and munitions that are explicitly designed and primarily employed to incapacitate targeted personnel or material immediately, while minimising fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property in the target area or environment. These are intended to have reversible effects on personnel or material and their use reflects an approach to warfare that seeks to reconcile the objective of defeating the enemy with the moral imperative of sparing innocent lives. These prevent the target from functioning but   do not   always assure “zero fatality” in all scenarios.

The current generation of nonlethal weapons includes counter personnel and counter material capabilities used for controlling crowds or stopping/diverting vehicles  . They provide options for escalation of force that allows military  commanders to determine the  intent of potentially hostile individuals/ groups and accordingly  modify the response. Counter personnel systems currently used include use of lasers for temporarily overwhelming an adversary’s visual sense by emitting a bright flash and glare effect and use of temporary incapacitating munitions like Crowd Dispersal Cartridge(CDC), Modified Crowd Control Munition Ground Emplaced (MCCM-GE),Vehicle Mounted Non Lethal Grenade Launcher (VMNLGL), Gauge Bean Bag Cartridge, Foam Rubber Baton Cartridge, Rubber Ball Grenade, Non Lethal Cartridge, Copper Sabot Slugs. Examples of Counter material systems include Spike Strips, Caltrops (heavy-gauge steel-puncturing spikes), the Vehicle Lightweight Arresting Device, and Portable Vehicle Arresting Barriers and Running Gear Entanglers.

More sophisticated nonlethal weapons are being developed with greater operational range, applicable to a variety of needs, to provide a layered defence against potential threats. These include airburst nonlethal munitions, pre-emplaced electric vehicle stoppers, and non-kinetic active-denial technology. Active-denial technology, which delivers precision nonlethal effects at extended ranges, offers hope in crowd control, area denial, and other applications. Active denial uses millimeter wave (MMW) technology to create an invisible beam of directed energy that produces a strong heating sensation on the surface of the skin, which is completely reversible once an individual moves out of the beam’s path. 

Nonlethal weapons have inherent advantages being more humane and they can:

  • create a more capable and versatile force without loss of lethality,
  • help to determine intention and provide important de escalatory options for troops between stopping and shooting,
  • avoid negative consequences that could emerge as a result of the use of lethal force  by troops where the costs of a wrong decision on the use of force can be psychologically devastating,
  • be consistent with the moral principles that guide  military actions be compliant with international law and its requirement to use force judiciously, proportionately, and discriminately,
  • reduce unintended civilian casualties and inadvertent damage to property,
  • avoid expensive reconstruction costs associated with rebuilding infrastructure damaged as a result of traditional kinetic military operations,
  • help achieve overall mission success with minimum casualties.

Significant progress has been made in developing nonlethal technologies and fielding existing off-the-shelf capabilities. Despite their relevance to today’s contingency operations, however, nonlethal weapons remain an under utilised asset. Institutional resistance, bureaucratic inertia, lack of funding, inadequate training, doctrinal shortcomings, unclear requirements from the Services, and practical impediments to fielding—such as technological hurdles and insufficient quantities of nonlethal systems with greater standoff range—have impeded a more thorough integration of nonlethal capabilities into the total force. In addition, fostering a greater understanding of the role and utility of nonlethal weapons as an irregular warfare enabler commonly associated only with UN  force protection missions, remains a significant challenge.

The utility of nonlethal weapons in irregular conflicts, peacekeeping, and humanitarian operations is more than theoretical. Every military commander eventually realises that non-lethal weapons are vital in creating the effects needed to defeat an adversary. Their use sends a strong message without the need to employ deadly force. Though important for irregular warfare missions such as counterinsurgency, nonlethal weapons have much broader applicability across the full range of military operations. As the army is called upon to assist in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations , nonlethal weapons can also be useful for crowd control and to deescalate tensions before violence erupts, helping forces maintain order during the distribution of food, water, and medical supplies to survivors after a natural disasters like the recent one in Uttarakhand and to to avoid any stampede related mishaps.

In short, the use of nonlethal weapons can have a strategic “multiplier effect” by avoiding collateral damage to property and infrastructure, minimising unintended civilian casualties, overcoming negative perceptions of the army, denying negative propaganda  and minimising long-term reconstruction costs. Perhaps no other capability allows for a broader range of employment options across a wider spectrum of contingencies with the capacity to affect outcomes from the tactical level to the strategic . In the absence of institutionalisation of nonlethal weapons training and equipping, deployed forces will continue to be called upon to exercise “self restraint”  to minimise unintended casualties and damage. The effects of unintended civilian casualties reach beyond the local population besides having  a traumatic effect  on young troops who must forever live with the consequences of their actions.

Many future conflicts are likely to be unconventional and irregular and take place in environments where it is difficult to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. Conventional operations may also occur in urban environments within close proximity to civilians and critical infrastructure. In these circumstances, nonlethal weapons can play an increasingly useful role in support of military goals and objectives. Yet this transformation is unlikely to happen without a greater understanding of the tactical and strategic benefits of these weapons.

In conclusion, nonlethal weapons are not a substitute for the application of lethal force and, when employed, nonlethal weapons are always backed by lethal means. As an adjunct to lethal force, however, they can be a powerful addition to the military  inventory. The capabilities provided by nonlethal weapons can help enable mission success across the full spectrum of conflict, from irregular warfare to more traditional contingencies. The importance of tracking and highlighting incidents where nonlethal weapons have avoided the consequences of using deadly force and successfully deescalated the potential for violence cannot be overestimated.

Like the earlier  experiences with the Global Positioning System(GPS) and the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), the transformation of Non-Lethal weapons from a niche capability  to one useful across the spectrum of contingencies depends on  the vision to utilise their broad-based utility in helping achieve mission success. The effective integration   of Non-Lethal  weapons  will thus act  as an enabler  and will  help in  achieving  strategic and tactical goals and military  objectives.


The author is a Senior Fellow at CLAWS.

The views expressed are personal.


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Manoj Shergill
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