An Opportunity Missed

by David J. Trachtenberg

New military technologies often raise new moral, ethical, political, and legal dilemmas. The development of nuclear weapons, for example, led to concerns about whether their use would violate the laws of war and the “just war” principle of proportionality.  Some scholars today still debate the morality of the atomic bombing of Japan.  Ever since then, a political taboo has arguably helped lessen the risk of nuclear use.  This is understandable, given their ability to cause massive destruction on an unprecedented scale.

Ironically, even new military technologies intended to prevent casualties in the event of war have raised similar dilemmas.  “Non-lethal” weapons that employ directed energy are a case in point.

The Active Denial System (ADS)—a novel millimeter-wave technology useful for deterring approaching individuals and protecting American forces without jeopardizing innocent lives—has been redeployed from Afghanistan because of concerns about how its use against Afghans might be perceived.  Moreover, some military leaders within USCENTCOM seem unwilling or unable to counter the anticipated criticisms that America’s enemies, inaccurate news accounts, or the blogosphere would hurl against us in the event of the weapon’s use.

ADS uses an invisible beam of directed energy to cause an intense heating sensation on the surface of the skin that forces the target to move quickly in order to get out of its path.  It is effective at dispersing unruly and potentially dangerous individuals without any lasting physical effects; once the subject moves out of the beam’s path, the sensation disappears.  It has been demonstrated to be safe in more than 11,000 tests on 700 human volunteers, including members of the media.  Importantly, ADS fits nicely into a war strategy that seeks to maximize the protection of American forces while minimizing unintended non-combatant casualties.

According to press reports, ADS—which only recently arrived in Afghanistan – has now been shipped back to the United States without ever firing an electron in anger or self-defense.  But why send a sophisticated weapon system all to way to a theater of war only to pack it up and send it home soon after it arrives without ever employing it?  With July being the deadliest month for American troops since the Afghan conflict began more than eight years ago, it isn’t due to significant improvements in the Afghan security situation.

Rather, it appears ADS is the victim of a major perception problem.  It is easily mischaracterized as a weapon that “fries” or “cooks” its targets.   One commentator called it a “riot-roasting raygun.”  In fact, details on how the weapon works and the associated human effects have been openly published.  Nevertheless, misinformation persists.

Yet the non-lethality of the ADS system could prove useful in a counterinsurgency operation where avoidance of civilian casualties is essential to mission success.  Indeed, the recently revised “Tactical Directive” governing the use of force in Afghanistan by U.S. troops—originally promulgated by former U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) Commander General Stanley McChrystal and now reaffirmed in slightly modified form by General David Petraeus— virtually cries out for greater employment of non-lethal technologies.

In an unclassified portion of the directive it states:

“We must continue—indeed, redouble—our efforts to reduce the loss of innocent civilian life to an absolute minimum.  Every Afghan civilian death diminishes our cause. If we use excessive force or operate contrary to our counterinsurgency principles, tactical victories may prove to be strategic setbacks.” (emphasis in original)

Importantly, the directive calls the protection of Afghan civilians a “moral imperative” and highlights the need to “bring all assets to bear” to protect American and Afghan troops.  Non-lethal weapons, including the Active Denial System, are designed to do just that.

In the Tactical Directive, General Petraeus notes, “Some civilian casualties result from a misunderstanding or ignorance of local customs and behaviors.  No individuals are more attuned to the Afghan culture than our Afghan partners.”  Therefore, he directs that all operations be conducted in partnership with Afghan forces, including the “planning and execution phases.”

Such joint planning for the employment of a novel and non-lethal directed energy technology on the battlefield might have helped mitigate any possible misunderstanding or ignorance of ADS’ non-lethal effects and avoided the embarrassment (and cost) of sending the system to Afghanistan only to have it crated up and returned stateside before ever being used.  According to one report, the ADS now “languishes in politically correct limbo” with “commanders unwilling to take the media heat for employing a ‘death ray’ on ‘innocent civilians.”

Ironically, domestic law enforcement may be the first to use a spin-off of the Defense Department technology.  The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department recently held a press conference announcing they are evaluating the use of a millimeter-wave “Assault Intervention Device” for preventing inmate assaults.  According to Sheriff Lee Baca, this device “appears uniquely suited to address some of the more difficult inmate violence issues….” Charles “Sid” Heal, formerly with the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, reportedly summed the situation up thusly:  “If we try and succeed we’ve become heroes in that we accepted a risk the Department of Defense refused — even after they spent $40 million of the taxpayers money and even while they’re killing people, because [they] are unwilling to use it.”

The military’s inability or unwillingness to counter negative publicity or false charges regarding ADS is a sad commentary on our ability to harness technology in support of our warfighting goals and to counter the propaganda efforts of our enemies or inaccurate press reports.  It also appears to violate General Petraeus’ recent counterinsurgency guidance for Afghanistan, which calls on U.S. and coalition forces to “fight the information war aggressively” and “challenge disinformation.”

Moreover, the ADS experience in Afghanistan suggests that the military has a harder time wrestling with the moral, ethical, and political challenges of “weapons” designed to save lives than to take them.  Convincing skeptics – even within the U.S. military – of the advantages of non-lethal weapons systems appears to be an uphill battle and flies in the face of centuries of military culture, thinking, doctrine, and training.

Non-lethal weapons are not a panacea.  They are not a substitute for lethal means.  But they can be an important adjunct to the use of lethal force in situations where minimizing civilian casualties is essential to mission success.  They can also be a useful tool for shaping the operational environment to U.S advantage.  Indeed, the need to “shape the conditions” of the battlefield was highlighted by Gen. Petraeus in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this summer.

Unfortunately, without a serious commitment by the civilian and military leadership to make the strategic case for non-lethal weapons systems like ADS, a more aggressive effort by the military services to understand the value of and incorporate these technologies into operational plans, and a re-evaluation of the U.S. military’s strategic communications effort, new technologies to protect the American warfighter may never be deployed in the face of an unwillingness to counter the propaganda efforts of America’s enemies or the misinformation perpetrated by the blogosphere.

The importance of effectively countering such propaganda regarding directed energy weapons was highlighted three years ago by the Defense Science Board, which called for “a concerted education effort to replace the ‘death ray’ myth of directed weapons with a comprehensive understanding of the potential benefits and limitations of their application.”  It appears little progress has been made toward this goal.

Despite the Afghanistan experience, ADS may still play a useful role in contingency operations where the use of lethal force is not always the best option.  Tailoring our response to the ever-changing nature of conflict and the imperative of ensuring that tactical successes do not become strategic defeats will be increasingly important in future military operations.

We should not allow this opportunity missed to become an opportunity lost.

David J. Trachtenberg is president and CEO of Shortwaver Consulting and a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, 2001-2003.

(Photo: Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate)