Monday, April 26, 2010

Rubber bullets are not magic bullets

Late last week I had tweeted about a recent Michael O'Hanlon op-ed on non-lethal weapons, titled "Troops need not shoot in Afghanistan". I'm pretty sure I called this piece "profoundly stupid." Because it is. Before I get into the topic of non-lethal weapons, I should make the disclaimer that this is one veteran's opinion. I have yet to see a substantiative study on this topic so all I can go off of are my own experiences and discussions I've had with other vets.

I called this piece profoundly stupid because it was written from idealist's point of view and is completely devoid of any on-the-ground perspective. That's not to say that O'Hanlon is alone on this road. RAND, who did a much more comprehensive study, came to the same conclusions. But I find that report to be exceedingly optimistic on the false panacea that is non-lethal weapons. Both O'Hanlon and the RAND authors look at non-lethal weapons from the 30,000 foot view, as they would a strategic issue. Unfortunately for them, the application of non-lethal weapons is exclusively at the tactical level - so misunderstanding how these tools are actually used will lead to (in my estimation) faulty conclusions.

I'll sum up O'Hanlon's argument in a syllogism:

1. U.S. forces kill way too many civilians in Afghanistan and we don't want to do that.
2. Non-lethal weapons don't kill people, but get them to do what you want them to.
3. We need a lot more non-lethal weapons so troops stop killing Afghan civilians.

The first sentence is absolutely true and I will not argue with it. The second sentence, and really the crux of his argument, is fantastically wrong.

The first problem is that non-lethal weapons do kill people. Granted, they kill a lot less people than lethal munitions, but they still kill people. You have all heard and seen this on the news when police forces attempt to quell riots. Rubber bullets ricochet and hit soft parts of the body or expire and might as well be metal bullets. Bean bags (fired from an M203 usually) often cause heart attacks if they hit a person mid-torso. In traffic, non-lethal weapons often cause fatal traffic accidents because of a very-distracted driver, shattered windshields, blown tires, etc. Again, they're not as fatal as real bullets, but they're often fatal.

The second problem with the syllogism is that they don't often make people do what you want them to do. With truly non-lethal weapons (such as acoustic devices or sub-cutaneous microwaves), the targets often aren't sure what is going on other than they're in pain. This doesn't mean that they know what you want them to do - it just puts them in serious amounts of pain. And there are other issues with these devices: the microwaves have been banned for the time being because we don't understand the long-term effects of them and the acoustic devices can screw up a person's hearing and equilibrium for short and long periods of time.

But here's the biggest problem with this piece. It doesn't look at these weapons from the user's perspective. Non-lethal weapons add more to a soldier's load plan - taking the space that would normally be used for real ammo, water, food, medical equipment, etc to say nothing of the additional weight. While not as much a problem for motorized or mechanized forces, this can be prohibitive for dismounted operations.

While training soldiers on the proper use of these weapons will do a lot to mitigate their often lethal effects, there is no effective training to date that deals with the decision to use lethal vs. non-lethal weapons. This can be very straight-forward (though still often murky) for police officers (as described in the RAND study), but that doesn't mean that their escalation of force procedures apply to a more violent and threatening environment. Often the battlefield moves too quickly for an individual to cycle through non-lethal options before using lethal force. When a car is speeding towards you, you don't often have time to put in your rubber bullets and/or transition to real bullets. The decision process becomes overwhelming to a 20 year old sergeant in the turret of an MRAP. Because if he uses the wrong tool and obtains a bad result, it could be disastrous for either party. If you have ten seconds from the moment you identify a potential threat until that threat will impact you in some way, you don't have the time to weigh what weapon you will use. And if you chose the wrong one, there won't be time to transition to the right one.

I'll wrap this all up to say that in my tours in Iraq, I never had non-lethal weapons and I never once thought to myself, "Boy, I wish I had some non-lethal weapons to diffuse this situation." Ever. Does the U.S. need to work on it's EOF procedures? Absolutely. Way too many civilians get hurt or killed because soldiers aren't using the one tool they have correctly. Now imagine adding other tools. Should the U.S. develop non-lethal weapons? Again, absolutely. But a big chunk of that development better be on decision methods for the user so he knows whether or not he should use it. Otherwise, don't bother at all. And that's why I think O'Hanlon is way, way wrong.

For those of you who've been on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq: I'd like to hear from you on whether or not you agree with me here.


  1. I am glad you posted on this topic, something I wanted to cover over at al Sahwa but didn't have the time. Several of your points are dead on:

    1) One of Michael O'Hanlon's comments buried in the article offered a suggestion to soldiers. Why not aim at the tires or engine block of an approaching vehicle first? Our soldiers do that very thing, it is one of the many steps a soldier has to go through called "Escalation of Force." As you know, proper step by step EOF is difficult under perfect training conditions. EOF in an environment where people are trying to kill you is extremely hard, and articles like O'Hanlon's fail to give our soldiers credit for the job they do. To get to your point, you could not be more correct in stating that we need to train the decision making process. There are several steps to EOF, we need to train our most junior soldier on what steps he skips when the situation is rapidly changing to increase his safety, his units safety, and the LN's safety.

    2) Our soldiers do not get enough training time with their assigned weapons system. Now we want to add non-lethal weapons to their kit. So a M203 Grenadier now has to worry about what round is loaded in his tube, lethal or non-lethal. His decision making process is already overwhelmed by intricate EOF procedures, and we want to add non-lethal weapons to the mix.

    3) I think our non-lethal EOF tools are adequate. Pen flares, signal lasers, and vehicle signs all work. We need to draw the line here. I agree with Gunslinger, our soldiers do not need to practice transitioning between rubber bullets and live rounds, we need to focus on the decision process and use what tools we have. Draw the line here. Its always the good idea of someone who will never be put in that situation where they will have to make a split second decision that has lasting effects.

  2. I haven't been in Iraq/AfPak, and I agree that O'Hanlon is generally a tool. But I wonder if you're missing something here, Gunslinger. Let's put aside the semantics about less-than-lethal vs non-lethal for a moment. While it's true that combat soldiers ought to be refining their combat skills and that NLW adds to the burden, one ought to remember the basic point that we're not supposed to be doing combat ops in a COIN environment (well, at least not primary). The govt security forces ought to be doing the combat missions, and we ought to be advising/supporting.

    In that vein, think about the bus that US soldiers shot up, killing four Afghanis and no combatants were on the bus. The situation would have been much better had one of the soldiers dropped a box of caltrops on the road, hit the tires with sticky foam, or blew out the driver's window with a bean-bag. Yeah, there still would have been repercussions, but far less than leaving dead Afghanis who weren't carrying guns.

    McChrystal made a comment that (paraphrasing) the majority of US shootings were in situations where they mistook the noncombatants as insurgents. If that's not a clear cry for NLW, I don't know what is.

  3. @JD - good points. Especially on the pen flares, etc.

    @J. - While I completely agree with you on the role of third parties in COIN, it is somewhat irrelevant. Most of these incidents are EOF incidents that are defensive in nature - not active "combat missions." I wrote the "semantics" (which it really is) bit only to debunk the idea that non-lethal weapons are just that. I would say the whole heart of the matter is with the decision-making process. If we haven't figured that out, NLW are irrelevant.

    As for the McChrystal quote, I see it more of a cry for better PID and application of ROE, not NLW. But then again, you can surmise my opinion of the utility of NLWs from this post...

  4. I think the utility would be a certain specific situations. You could deploy some non-lethals to control access to roadblocks in ways to would avoid unnecessary shootings. I agree on the problems with the various forms of kinetic non-lethals - they are still really dangerous. But we've experimented with a variety of other techniques -- slicks and sticks, for instance -- that might provide an alternative to firing on a suspect vehicle.

    The more narrow issue is that I don't really think O'Hanlon was making a 30,000 foot argument. He was simply building on McChrystal's observation about the cases of mistakenly killing non-combatants -- as commenter J notes -- and suggesting non-lethals as a potential alternative. I didn't read his piece are a suggestion that non-lethals be the prime weapons/ordinance for soldiers.

  5. You could deploy some non-lethals to control access to roadblocks in ways to would avoid unnecessary shootings.

    Okay, here is where I will be more than happy to concede the utility of non-lethal weapons. Traffic control points, check points, cordons, etc. There they are part of the "defense" of the position and their use is measured and rehearsed. Not something we've been able to replicate effectively either on the offensive or on the move.

    I can see your point on O'Hanlon's perspective here. I disagree mainly because of this concluding statement: "Rather than ask our troops to make a choice between being at risk and taking actions that could kill innocent Afghans and set back the war effort, we should give them the tools they need to do their job." I took from this that he's focusing on the actual tool, where the equipment isn't the issue. It's in the decision on what tool to use, when, and how to use it. But I guess I could be off on that. As our long time readers will know, I'm not one to give O'Hanlon the benefit of the doubt because a lot of his previous stuff takes that big picture view, devoid of practicality on the ground.

  6. How do you know that the killing of civilians dramatically harms the war effort? During the so-called "Surge," we murdered four times as many civilians by air strikes in 2007 than we did during the non-"Surge" 2006. Twice as many civilians died from all causes during the pacification effort.

    I understand your underlying assumption, but what if it's not true?

    This isn't a plea to kill more innocent people. Rather simply to question another assumption that might not really matter.


  7. @SNLII - I don't think you can universally say that killing civilians dramatically harms the war effort - as your Iraq example demonstrates. I would argue that at a minimum, though, it's been problematic in Afghanistan.

    I guess I wouldn't say that's an underlying assumption for me. I'm more inclined to be more disciplined when it comes to trying to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties from a humanist perspective. As Leo McGarry of West Wing fame said, "There's a way to be a person."

  8. We already have non-lethal munitions. They're called smoke grenades (of various colors) and M84 Stun Hand Grenades. We also figured out nifty techniques that we called "warning shots" and occasionally convinced the nearest PSYOP team to use it's HMMWV-mounted speakers to broadcast non-interference messages in the local dialect. One time I remember doing something really crazy. I told the oldest guy in the neighborhood, "we're going to surround that house and grab Abu Shithead and then we're leaving. Please tell the locals not to get excited." But, yeah, I guess we could have opted to spray everyone down with hard rubber munitions.

    Think tanks often don't.

  9. But, yeah, I guess we could have opted to spray everyone down with hard rubber munitions.

    You once alerted me in advance that you were planning to re-use a particular phrase of mine, though I can't now remember what it was. I just want you to know that next time in a bind, I'm going to propose spraying everyone down with hard rubber munitions, and I'm probably not going to credit you with it (unless it's like in the middle of a brief at the Pentagon and some general says "where in the hell did you get THAT idea?!").

  10. Even in that situation, it's okay to cite me. See here. I'm now sufficiently authoritative.