Pentagon Lags in Developing Nonlethal Weapons, GAO Says

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009

In the wake of military deployments to Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia in the 1990s, the Pentagon concluded there was an important need for nonlethal weapons to control crowds without killing civilians, as happened frequently in Somalia.

Among the devices more recently studied by a Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate at Quantico Marine Corps Base are a laser to obscure a vehicle windshield at long ranges and force the driver to slow down, a device that uses radio-frequency energy to stop vehicles by interfering with engine electronics, and a sound-and-light array that could scare off crowds at much greater distances than anything used now.

But after spending at least $386 million over the past dozen years on these and other experiments, the Pentagon has little to show for its efforts, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office released last week.

The Pentagon's nonlethal weapons program has carried out more than 50 research and development projects over that time but has developed no new weapons, according to the report, and the efforts have resulted in just four items being fielded that only partially fill capability gaps identified in 1998.

The result is that troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have often had few options other than using deadly force or doing nothing when confronted with murky but potentially dangerous situations, such as an approaching car whose driver does not seem to recognize that he is drawing close to a U.S. military checkpoint.

"With little progress made toward filling the capability gaps with fielded equipment, joint force commanders continue to lack sufficient non-lethal capabilities," the GAO report states. The report blames poor oversight by the Pentagon, including a failure to set priorities.

In its response, the Defense Department concurred with most of the GAO's recommendations for improved management but said the report does not acknowledge progress that has been made. Officials also said that nonlethal weaponry is being deployed with units in Iraq and Afghanistan and has reduced casualties.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been far deadlier than those in Somalia, Haiti or Bosnia, but that has not reduced the need for nonlethal weapons. Since the start of the conflicts, commanders in the field have been requesting nonlethal weapons.

"That's where the requirement comes from -- getting more nonlethal capabilities," said Maj. Thomas Aarsen, an officer with the Army's ammunition program at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey.

In response to requests from units in the field, the Army directed in 2003 that all brigade combat teams be equipped with nonlethal weaponry, Aarsen said.

But the nonlethal equipment was not deployed to the field until about six months ago and does not include any breakthrough technology. The equipment includes "stun guns" similar to those long used by law enforcement agencies, acoustic hailing devices that project sound over long distances to warn people or vehicles to stop, and nets and portable arresting barriers to stop vehicles.

The use of nonlethal devices at vehicle checkpoints in Iraq has reduced casualties, according to a report from the directorate, but commanders in the field are asking for more nonlethal options with increased range and accuracy.

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