By VINCE LITTLEMarch 28, 2012
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- A group of Infantry Soldiers set up a "hasty" traffic control point Friday at the McKenna Urban Operations Complex to see how effective a batch of nonlethal devices could be in halting the approach of motorists and vehicles.
The demonstration punctuated a two-week assessment by the Department of Defense's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, Marine Corps Forces Pacific Experimentation Center and Fort Benning's Maneuver Battle Lab. It involved nine Soldiers from D Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, out of Fort Stewart, Ga. The evaluation began March 12.
While all four military branches already employ variations of nonlethal weapons, the DoD continues to develop capabilities that protect civilian populations while maximizing U.S. force protection, said Brian Long, a project officer from JNLWD, which is based in Quantico, Va.
"It's all about how the use of nonlethals can protect lives and help accomplish the mission," he said. "Here, we wanted to let the Soldiers and NCOs take those nonlethals and incorporate them into their own (tactics, techniques and procedures), and finely craft them for the field. They can now tune those to each individual situation."
Long said the agency goal is to "mainstream" nonlethal weapons in counterinsurgency operations, a strategy that's shifted more toward reducing civilian casualties in Afghanistan. A series of assessments are planned in the next two years across the services.
Airstrikes are the leading cause of civilian deaths in combat zones, while traffic control points sit at No. 2, said Ken Sheehy, project lead for the Marine Corps Forces Pacific Experimentation Center.
"If you don't have to shred the car or create collateral damage, it's obviously a big win," he said. "Nonlethal weapons can increase communication, distance and reaction times for U.S. troops. That leads to much better decision-making."
He said "hasty" checkpoints are more volatile because civilians are given no advance warning. That increases prospects for an incident because they're more likely not to follow instructions when approaching.
At traffic control points, American troops often have a hard time determining intent and whether or not a driver could be hostile, Long said. Nonlethal weapons provide them an additional tool to assist in that decision, safer options and the ability to react with some restraint when required.
"Protecting civilian lives is the prize while we still chase down the bad guys," he said. "We want to keep winning the hearts and minds of the local population and conduct our missions at the same time."
Maneuver Battle Lab officials said the effort supports the Maneuver Center of Excellence's "Squad: Foundation of the Decisive Force" initiative for achieving overmatch. It makes Soldiers at the tactical small unit level more effective by giving them nonlethal alternatives in situations where force escalation could occur.
Fort Benning's military utility assessment focused on the establishment of a checkpoint and stopping vehicles, a routine mission in theater, Long said. Planners brought in temporary hires from the area to play the parts of Afghan civilian motorists. They were given cues during the simulated runs, and Soldiers used the nonlethal weapons to get the drivers to stop before having to shoot at the car or people inside.
Sgt. Cory Tanner of 3-7 Inf. said he had little knowledge of the nonlethal weapons systems before leaving Fort Stewart but quickly saw the dividends they could deliver in combat.
"Anything that can keep distance between us and the enemy is beneficial," he said. "The more we have in our tool kits, the better we can reduce casualties and help keep our own Soldiers safe. We want our guys to come back home alive."
Giving local citizens as many chances as possible to follow protocol at checkpoints is critical, said Spc. Binh Tran, also of Fort Stewart.
"These weapons definitely help toward our intent to mitigate civilian casualties," he said.
"It would save lives all around -- us and those area civilians. Hopefully, we give them enough steps before we have to take it to the next level and use deadly force."