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Nonlethality and American Land Power: Strategic Context and Operational Concepts

Authored by Professor Douglas C. Lovelace Jr., Dr. Steven Metz.

June 15, 1998

51 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Nonlethal technology, concepts and doctrine may provide the Army a way to retain its political utility and military effectiveness in a security environment characterized by ambiguity and the glare of world public opinion. To explore this, the Army is undertaking programs and initiatives which may make it the driving force in nonlethality.

The authors place nonlethality within its larger strategic context and explain how it is related to the revolution in military affairs. They then assess the arguments for and against the integration of nonlethality into American doctrine and procedures. Finally, they offer operational concepts which could serve as the basis for doctrine and for tactics, techniques, and procedures.


The nature of the contemporary strategic environment has generated much interest in nonlethality among American defense policymakers and military leaders. While cases can be made both for and against integration of nonlethality into military doctrine and strategy, proponents of nonlethality have a stronger case.

With appropriate forms of technology, doctrine, operational concepts, and rules of engagement, nonlethality could increase the utility of the U.S. armed forces during this era of ambiguous conflict. Nonlethality could provide political decision-makers and military commanders with means to dominate the portion of the spectrum of force that lies between diplomacy and lethality. In doing so, they will be better able to apply the precise psychological pressure required to modify an adversary's behavior in a certain way. Nonlethality can be used to deter or preempt conflict, separate belligerents and allow for "cooling off," encourage negotiation, protect noncombatants, facilitate disaster relief and humanitarian assistance operations, enhance the effectiveness of lethal weapons and other instruments of national power, and reduce risks to U.S. forces.

Nonetheless, there are several cautions associated with the use of nonlethality. The apparent avoidance of political risks that nonlethality provides can delay necessary debate and the making of tough policy decisions. The pursuit of nonlethality by the United States could be viewed as hegemonic by other countries. Nonlethality could compromise the principle of military necessity if it encourages field commanders to be less discriminating in distinguishing military targets from nonmilitary locations and populations. Finally, nonlethality could lead to increased violations of sovereignty.

From an operational perspective, nonlethality appears to have more applicability at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. Nonlethal capabilities should be included in plans for the application of flexible deterrent options (FDOs). In that role, nonlethality can add to the effectiveness of diplomatic, economic, informational, and other military FDOs. It is critical, however, that nonlethal FDOs be crafted to avoid inadvertently placing the United states on the "slippery slope" to involvement in a series of peripheral bloodlettings that might undercut American public support for a strategy of global engagement. In that regard, it will sometimes be necessary to clearly announce that U.S. forces will resort to lethal force if nonlethality fails to have the desired effect. In other situations, it will be more prudent to create deliberate ambiguity on the willingness to resort to deadly force.

Within the context of military operations other than war (MOOTW), nonlethality should be considered for force and site protection, riot and crowd control, separation of belligerents, interdiction of resupply efforts or offensives, operational persuasion, and security assistance. For small-scale conflicts, nonlethality can help insure mission accomplishment while controlling and ultimately reducing the level of violence. Although nonlethality will be most useful at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, it has significant applicability for major theater warfare. It that regard, nonlethality should be employed to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of lethal weapons. Nonlethal capabilities also can be used to measure a certain dose of punishment to aggressor states and to facilitate post-war reconstruction. Finally, nonlethal capabilities can be used for direct action missions that might include strategic preemption, hostage rescue, and anti-terrorist operations.

Nonlethality will not create difficult rules of engagement (ROE) problems. Rather, nonlethality will enable commanders to tailor better rules and operational procedures that ensure force, proportionate to that necessitated by the situation and mission, is available and usable. Consequently, decisions that must be made by field forces concerning the appropriate level of force to be applied will be less ambiguous. Rather than adding complexity to ROE issues, nonlethality should be seen as providing unprecedented fidelity in the application of force to accomplish a wider set of legitimate missions. Nonlethality will not remove violence from armed conflict. Nonlethal capabilities will not obviate lethal forces, at least not for the foreseeable future. In fact, in some cases, nonlethality should be used to enhance the effects of lethal weapons. Still, nonlethality can sufficiently increase the utility of American land power in this era of ambiguity and uncertainty to warrant its pursuit.


• The U.S. armed forces, particularly the Army and Marines, should develop operational concepts for the employment of nonlethality.

• These operational concepts should not be constrained by extant capabilities or those under development. The concepts must drive technological investigations. In particular, research is needed on wide-area, standoff non-lethal systems, and on variable intensity nonlethal systems so that commanders have a true rheostatic capability rather than an "either/or" choice between lethal and non-lethal means.

• The Army should begin research and development of data bases to support assessments of the psychological impact which certain actions are likely to have in certain cultures. This will help commanders to select the appropriate circumstances for the use of nonlethal weapons and guide the research and development community as they refine nonlethal weapons, thus linking operational imperatives and technology.

• Once concepts and technology are in place, the Standing Rules Of Engagement should be reviewed for possible modification or supplementation to ensure full realization of the additional capabilities nonlethality has to offer.

• Joint doctrine setting forth the operational concepts for the use of nonlethality in design of operations should be developed and promulgated. Service doctrine should follow suit.

• Policymakers should remain ever-mindful of the cautions associated with the application of nonlethality.

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