Non-lethal weapons give soldiers more options to fight terrorism

Anchored ships in a harbor are frequent targets for terrorists. Stationary, expensive, and surrounded by civilian traffic, they are almost impossible to secure — a classic sitting duck.

Aug 1st, 2003
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By Ben Ames

Anchored ships in a harbor are frequent targets for terrorists. Stationary, expensive, and surrounded by civilian traffic, they are almost impossible to secure — a classic sitting duck. But a new type of focused sound beam gives sailors a new tool to hail distant boats and deliver painful noise if they get too close...all without firing a single shot.

This kind of non-lethal weapon is changing crowd control, border crossings, and terror attack prevention.

Researchers have designed a laser flash that temporarily blinds a person, an electromagnetic pain-beam that heats his skin, expanding foam that can instantly fill a doorway to stop intruders, and a net that catches cars as they speed through security gates.

We have come a long way since the classic "Stop or I'll shoot!" scenario. Armed with non-lethal weapons, a guard can now scale his response to match the threat. As a suspicious person draws nearer, the guard can dissuade, deter, or finally disable him.

This range of replies finally gives sailors a middle ground — the ability to change someone's behavior without killing him, says Capt. Carl H. Gruenler, Smart Wing Program Manager at the Naval Air Station Brunswick, in Brunswick, Maine.


The Long Range Acoustic Device from American Technology Corp. essentially is a far-ranging speaker that helps U.S. warfighters speak to distant platforms.
Click here to enlarge image

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Gruenler calls it the Vincennes/ Cole gap. You can shoot first and wish you had not (the USS Vincennes mistakenly downed a commercial jetliner over Iran in 1988, killing 290 civilians), or you can not shoot and wish you had (the USS Cole lost 17 sailors in 2000 when terrorists in a small powerboat detonated explosives in a harbor in Yemen).

Much of this research is funded by the U.S. Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate in Quantico, Va. See http://www. jnlwd.usmc.mil/ for more details. One of the tools to emerge from that program is the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) from American Technology Corp. in San Diego.

It looks like a backyard satellite dish, 33 inches in diameter, weighing 45 pounds. But this is much more powerful — the LRAD is a high-intensity loudspeaker that focuses sound like a flashlight beam. And its cousin the HIDA (High Intensity Directional Acoustics) can crank up the volume beyond human comfort. With these tools, users can speak intelligibly to a person a quarter-mile away, or focus unbearable tones on him if he draws too near. Yet thanks to its tight focus on the target, bystanders are not deafened by the noise.

Since August, 2002, Navy policy has been to warn small boats that get within 500 yards of a warship, and to force them away if they close to 100 yards. But a sailor's only options are to query passing boats with his bullhorn, and open fire with a machine gun if they get too close.

"One of our major challenges is waterside force protection, because you can't determine intent; that's the missing piece," says Gruenler. "Sailors are charged with protecting the ship, but they don't have the tools to do it; their only choice is lighting off with a fifty-cal."

So Navy officials are testing the LRAD on ship decks. In May, American Technology delivered six units to bases in Norfolk and San Diego. And COMNAV AIRLANT (Commander, Naval Air Forces, Atlantic) has ordered four more, Gruenler says.

"We now have the ability to get someone's attention, and we can guarantee they've heard us, without any mistake," says Gruenler. If the boat keeps coming, guards can turn on the warning pulse, which sends bursts of sound at 3,000 hertz. "That's right in the sweet spot of what humans hear as annoying. The pulse is god-awful at that range."

Other branches are also evaluating the tool, says Peter Woodson, manager of business development for General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products division in Burlington, Vt.

The Marine Corps may use it on vehicles approaching checkpoints, and law enforcement may use it in hostage negotiations.

As the sole systems integrator for LRAD and HIDA, General Dynamics is looking at other applications, Woodson says. Researchers could install the tool in HMMWVs (high mobility multi-wheeled vehicles, aka humvees), helicopters, watercraft, robotic patrol vehicles, and even backpacks for a small, man-portable version.

In their search for a "fully tunable" weapon to cover the spectrum of lethality, General Dynamics engineers work with several types of directed-energy weapons, but they prefer the HIDA for its long standoff range, reversible effects, and immediate onset/offset.

"And you can provide direct communications to a target," Woodson says. "Rather than crude communications like firing a round over someone's head, you can talk to the target and tell them exactly what you want them to do."

But the design's not finished yet. Part of the challenge is limiting the harm caused to human targets. "It works great; maybe a little too well," Gruenler says. So Navy testers limit LRAD to 120dB at one meter distance (the OSHA hearing loss threshold). In an emergency, users can override the limit, and crank it up to 151 dB. By comparison, a smoke alarm is 70 to 80 dB.

"We can get your attention and cause some behavior modification. You just don't want to be there anymore," he says. "It doesn't take long."

This type of directed energy weapon is the ideal tool for handling 21st century threats, says Glenn Shwaery, director of the Non-lethal Technology Innovation Center (NTIC) at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H.

NTIC is the academic outreach arm of the Joint Non-lethal Weapons Directorate. The federal researchers identify needs for new weapons, then Shwaery awards two-year research grants to scientists. See http://www.unh.edu/ntic/ for more information.

"We're talking about novel technologies; not making a trajectory travel faster or straighter," he says. "For centuries we're known how to make things lethal, but you've got a fairly narrow window to delivery energy to personnel in a way that's strong enough to be effective, but not so strong it kills them. So we've stopped thinking about kinetic energy projectiles; now we're talking about the next-generation, and that's directed-energy."

Whether sound, light, or electromagnetism, directed energy can work wonders on the battlefield. Used against materiel, it can stop a car engine from a distance, or disable an anti-aircraft gun set up on a hospital roof. And used against personnel, it can clear all the people out of a building without causing permanent damage.

Of course, non-lethal weapons are nothing new. Women have carried mace in their purses for years, and riot police often fire rubber bullets to disperse crowds. But those methods would not pass military requirements today, Shwaery says.

One of the toughest challenges is that weapons must be scalable.

"If you have a lethal weapon, you like it to be effective at 21 feet or 100 meters. But with non-lethals, there's a good chance its effect will be different at those distances," he says. For instance, sounds waves disperse as they travel through the air, while light will retain its focus over a kilometer away.

So NTIC also funds work with malodorants — material so smelly that people will flee from buildings to escape the stench. The effects are similar to pepper spray or tear gas, but avoid the lingering respiratory effects, and burning mucous membranes and eyes. And these agents are much safer than the anesthetic gas used by Russian special forces when Chechen rebels kidnapped a theater full of Moscow hostages in October. Police killed all 37 rebels, but 117 hostages died from gas inhalation.

Current malodorant flavors include cadaverine (the smell of rotting corpses), bathroom malodor, and WhoMe? (a noxious personal gaseous emission), Shwaery says.

And researchers at the Southwest Research Institute, in San Antonio, Texas, have developed anti-traction material. Sprayed on a road, the slippery goo makes it impossible to walk or drive in a straight line. "Now you can deny people access to a building or embassy. Or you can take a bridge out of commission without having to bomb it," Shwaery says.

The problem with a malodorant or anti-traction foam is how to store it. Military planners say they must be able to store things for five or 10 years, then use them instantly when the time comes. So NTIC is funding research in encapsulation, where the agents are enclosed in small pills that fracture when crowds or cars crush them.

Military users typically have two demands for non-lethal weapons: increase the standoff distance, and buy more time to react.

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