On Oct. 19, NATO troops on patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand province fired a warning shot to stop a civilian vehicle that had come too close to the soldiers’ convoy. The round ricocheted, killing a two-year-old girl outside her home, according to Agence France-Presse.
It’s an old problem in Iraq and Afghanistan, where occupying troops find themselves targeted by suicide bombers in chaotic urban environments where it’s impossible to tell the good guys from the bad. Most soldiers have no peaceful way of communicating with civilian drivers other than with vague hand gestures — and few means short of a rifle to stop potential attackers.
For that reason, the U.S. military for years has been working to get so-called “nonlethal” weapons into the hands of deployed troops. The potential of such weapons to help U.S. troops fight the kind of insurgency warfare that they face in Iraq and Afghanistan has been recognized almost since the insurgency in Iraq began.
One key need in Iraq, according to Marine Corps Lt. Col. Jimmie Harmon, is to allow troops manning checkpoints “to gain the undivided attention of approaching vehicles without risking injury or death of innocent civilians.”
In 2005 Harmon, then deployed to western Iraq, sent an “urgent needs statement” to his commanders asking for $2 million to buy 400 hand-held green-laser “dazzlers” manufactured by L.E. Systems of Hartford, Conn. The L.E. Systems dazzler can temporarily blind (“dazzle”) at a range of 400 meters; it has proved popular with police forces.
Despite Harmon’s request and others, the L.E. Systems dazzler and other nonlethal weapons have been held up by bureaucratic waffling and, in the case of some of the more exotic devices, by poor test results that have resulted in injuries to test subjects. More than six years into the U.S.-led war against terrorism, just a handful of nonlethal weapons have entered service, while the need for them has only grown as major combat operations in Iraq become rarer and daily patrols in crowded cities become more common.
In the wake of Harmon’s needs statement, the Marine Corps tested two dazzler designs, comparing their “nominal ocular hazard distance” — in other words, their minimum safe ranges — before ultimately selecting a dazzler built by Redmond, Wash.-based B.E. Meyers. The Marine Corps’ choice was made against the advice of the Air Force, which had conducted its own testing and believed the L.E. Systems dazzler was safer. Instead of the 400 dazzlers urgently requested by Harmon, the Marines got only a couple dozen, shipped late last year after an 18-month delay.Now it appears the Marine Corps was wrong about the relative merits of the B.E. Meyers design versus that of its rival L.E. Systems. An independent test conducted by Laser Compliance, based in Utah, has confirmed what the Air Force tried to impress upon the Marine Corps last year: that the L.E. Systems dazzler is much safer. According to Laser Compliance, the L.E. Systems dazzler has a nominal ocular hazard distance of just 30 meters, compared to 70 meters for the B.E. Meyers device. So not only did the Marines have to wait more than a year to get their hands on a reduced quantity of dazzlers, the weapons they ultimately received were of the lesser design. One Marine Corps science advisor called the mix-up “plain incompetence.”
The dazzler situation unfortunately is typical of star-crossed military efforts to field non-lethal weapons. Another promising technology, which was also the subject of an urgent request dating back to 2005, has been interminably delayed by testing. The Active Denial System, which fires a 130-degree-Fahrenheit microwave “heat ray” out to 500 meters or more, began life more than a decade ago as a Pentagon experiment and is now overseen by the Air Force Research Laboratory. In as many as 10,000 test firings, the system has caused around six unintended injuries, including one in April that landed an airman test subject in the hospital. Safety concerns have prompted the military to push back fielding to 2010.
Read the whole story at World Politics Review.