US Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate: Sonic blasts, heat beams and green lasers
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An unclassified Department of Defense (DOD) document produced by the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD) was recently leaked onto the Internet. This document, entitled "Non-Lethal Weapons Reference Book" (or NLW), is a comprehensive listing -- including clip-art pictures and illustrations -- of weapon systems and devices that, according to the DOD, "are primarily employed to incapacitate targeted personnel or materiel immediately, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel and undesired damage to property."
The report, which is serious reading despite being structured much like a children's picture book, summarizes both existing and potential technologies that can be used to incapacitate and/or immobilize attackers and in some cases their vehicles. Among the prerequisites for such products are that they must intentionally be designed as non-lethal in nature and be "intended to have reversible effects." This includes existing technologies like the infamous Taser produced by US-based Taser International Inc. The Taser, often the bane of bar drunks and prison inmates across the United States, is considered the 'killer app' of their space and provides validation of the marketability of non-lethal weapons.
For example, Taser International posted sales of approximately $24 million in the last quarter of 2011. While this amount may seem insignificant next to a major defense contractor, the company also posted margins in excess of 53 percent for that same quarter. These double digit margins are unheard of in the defense contractor space and should provide incentives for smaller organizations to enter the market with concepts and products that meet the mandate of the JNLWD.
Setting aside the morality surrounding lethal weapon use against certain opponents (and civilian populations), the momentum for better non-lethal weapons has been building steadily since the Vietnam War. As General William Westmoreland famously said, "it's the first war we've ever fought on the television screen and the first war that our country ever fought where the media had full reign." Ironically, in news media rich environments, lethal weapons, while effective, can create a major public relations debacle on top of the unintended loss of life when improperly utilized. The NLW takes this philosophy into consideration and also brings attention to some of the deficiencies in existing non-lethal solutions. For example, Taser has had to settle a number of civil lawsuits out of court because the product was -- rightly or wrongly -- associated with the death of several individuals who were on the receiving end of the electrical shock produced by this weapon.
However, despite its popularity, the Taser has limitations. In other cases, a different sort of solution is needed, especially when dealing with crowds. Thus, the NLW is proposing delivery systems that seem somewhat futuristic -- almost out of a science fiction movie -- that can immobilize attackers using high sound frequencies, and even green laser beams which induce blindness or nausea. According to the JNLWD, another issue of concern that receives a lot of attention is the stopping of vehicles. This includes not only automobiles and trucks, but also boats and other waterborne craft. In some cases, the solution is very practical. For example, a metal strip can be laid across a roadway to puncture the tires of an unauthorized automobile. In other cases, the advocated solution is much more complex.
Imagine an oversized transmitter that can project intense microwaves or, in military terms, the Active Denial System. This weapon is an undeveloped concept at this time, but according to the notes accompanying the illustration, it will project a concentrated heat beam at targeted aircraft, causing their human pilots to switch course and/or comply with instructions.
The Department of Defense has, in its own words, supported the NLW to offer "additional options" along with the ability to utilize lethal weapons. These sorts of ventures, in order to succeed, need to be assessed by smaller private niche organizations that are creative, pragmatic, multi-disciplinary and able to achieve financial success without massive scale; in fact, these are the opposite attributes of most major defense contractors. The organization of the report, along with the fact that it was cleared of all classified materials before being "leaked," means that the DOD is seeking assistance with making some of these concepts become a reality. Therefore, inventors, applied academics and other innovative but private companies in the commercial space could benefit from applying their knowledge to develop non-lethal weapons as an exercise in diversity and a strategy for creating new revenue streams.