Technology

Frontline Tech: Is There A Future For Non-Lethal Weapons?

"In a world dominated by rolling news coverage and social media, any ‘collateral damage’ or civilian casualties can have disastrous effects"...

The PepperBall VKS is often issued with bright yellow or orange plastic grips to distinguish it from the lethal M4 (Picture: PepperBall).

By David Hambling, technology expert

While modern warfare has produced an arsenal ever more lethal weaponry, there is also a demand for weapons which do not kill or injure, what the US military terms ‘non-lethal weapons’.

These are the successors to old standbys like rubber bullets and tear gas, used in situations where lethal force is not desirable.

The US Army has just acquired a batch of Pepperball VKS launchers. These are essentially supercharged paintball guns, closely modelled on the M4 carbine.

They can fire the same .68 ammunition as other paintball weapons, but with a higher muzzle velocity (Paintball weapons are limited to 90 metres per second for safety reasons, whereas the VKS goes well over 120 m/s).

As the name suggests, the PepperBall launcher usually fires rounds filled with irritant powder whose active agent is derived from chilli. They burst on impact to produce a cloud which burns and sting the eyes, nose and mouth. 

However, chemical weapons restrictions mean the US Army steers clear of irritant agents and are instead deploying what PepperBall call ‘inert’ rounds filled with a non-irritant powder, not unlike talcum powder.

The inert rounds work by kinetic impact, like miniature rubber bullets.

They sting a lot more than a paintball, according to PepperBall’s Ben Carlson, causing pain rather than injury.  They are also extremely accurate.

The original PepperBall projectile design came out of a DARPA program. The latest version, known as VXR, is a hemisphere with a flared tail which spins in flight to provides good accuracy over long ranges.

The Pepperball VKS can accept a magazine with a capacity of 15 rounds, or a 180-round hopper.

The Army will use the PepperBall to protect guard towers and other facilities from stone-throwers. Its range of 50 metres should provide an effective alternative to either shooting or shouting.

While the PepperBall launchers are at the personal end of the scale, the latest weapon being tested by the US Marine Corps is more like artillery: an 81mm non-lethal mortar round. 

This is designed to distract, disorientate, dazzle and daze without causing lasting harm, much like a scaled-up version of the famous ‘stun grenades’ used by the SAS.

The new round delivers fourteen flash-bang devices in a tight pattern over a target area up to 4.5 km away. The submunitions have cardboard casings and produce a significant blast without dangerous shrapnel.

Members of 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment, fire 81mm mortars during their annual training (Picture: US Department of Defense).

US Army engineers won a patent for their ingenious design, which employs parachutes to ensure that nothing lands at high speed in the target area.

Even a ‘non-lethal’ mortar bomb weighing 4.5 kg moving at several hundred miles per hour could be deadly if it scored a direct hit.

The non-lethal mortar round could be used tactically to separate insurgents from non-combatant ‘human shields’, to move people out of an area, or to suppress a suspected firing position without harming bystanders.

The new round is still in the development stage. The Marines who tested it at the Rim of the Pacific exercise in Hawaii this month noted that one in 10 rounds did not detonate properly, some of the projectiles wobbled on the way out of mortar tubes, and the parachutes did not always function as intended.

That is not surprising, as the aim of this exercise was to identify possible faults, so they can be corrected before the round goes into production in 2021.

It may seem strange for the military to put so much technical effort into not killing people. But in a world dominated by rolling news coverage and social media, any ‘collateral damage’ or civilian casualties can have disastrous effects.

The new non-lethal weapons provide a means of applying force while reducing the risk of adverse consequences.