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Learning from the Riots of the 1990s

Historically, war has been characterized by the application of deadly force. However, recent U.S. contingencies in Somalia, Panama, Cuba, Haiti, and Bosnia-Herzegovina were peace operations, primarily, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The principle of restraint is a recurring characteristic of these operations. This principle requires that forces "apply appropriate military capability prudently," with due regard for collateral damage.1During these missions, soldiers are repeatedly challenged to cope with noncombatants and civil disturbances perpetuated by large, unruly crowds. U.S. soldiers used force or the threat of force to control these outbreaks but were equipped only with lethal weapon systems. The typical U.S. unit does not possess weapon systems that bridge the gap between minimal and lethal force.

The U.S. National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement and the U.S. Defense Strategy both emphasize that the United States will participate in peace operations when they support U.S. interests.2U.S. forces deploying to peace operations need to be equipped with the proper weapon systems to counter the likely threats while exercising appropriate restraint in the use of force. Recent history shows that the most likely threats are from civil disturbances.

Non-lethal weapons provide the means to control the situation in a manner that adheres to the principle of restraint, without excessively constraining the freedom of action of the military force. Used properly, non-lethal weapons provide the tactical commander with broader options in applying graduated levels of force to meet the threats common to peace operations. Non-lethal weapons in the hands of trained soldiers can save lives and reduce the violence often associated with confrontations between unruly mobs and peace operations forces.

LTC Martin N. Stanton identified certain characteristics of civil disturbances which he used to profile riots in third-world countries based on his studies of recent peace operations in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. According to LTC Stanton, third-world country civil disturbances are characterized by the following:3

  • Riots tend to be massive. Generally, rioters significantly outnumber riot-control forces. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, it was common for a platoon of soldiers to be given the mission of controlling several hundred angry civilians.

  • Riots can be lethal. Many riots turn lethal as one side takes advantage of the situation and tries to harm individuals or members of other groups. An example of this is the displaced person resettlement attempts in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnian Muslims, crossing the zone of separation to resettle in their former homes, were severely beaten by Bosnian Serbs who did not want them to resettle on the so-called Serb side of the zone of separation.

  • Riots are often carefully organized by factional leaders; they are not just spontaneous outbursts by the local populace. Examples include: (1) Peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina where a local political party paid civilians to demonstrate against the newly elected government. The local political party also used buses to transport demonstrators to the site of the demonstration. (2) According to news reports, groups organized and instigated civil disturbances in Seattle, WA, to protest U.S. support of the World Trade Organization.

  • Riots may involve large numbers of women and children. Demonstration organizers understand the reluctance of U.S. forces to risk injury to women and children. For this reason, organizers encourage women and children to take part in demonstrations to protect armed fighters or gunmen in the crowd.

  • Riots are likely where there is no functioning government and no law enforcement. In regions where government officials are ineffective or apathetic, there is no law and order. In some instances, local officials and police orchestrate civil disturbances and encourage the citizenry to riot and demonstrate. In many civil disturbances in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Bosnian Serb police did little to assist U.S. forces in riot situations.

  • Today, most peace operations involve forces from various nations. When the forces of these nations are combined in executing a peace operation, it is likely there will be several perspectives on how riots and civil disturbances should be controlled. Multi-national forces differ in their doctrine and training, especially in the use of force.

U.S. Army Field Manual 19-15, Civil Disturbances, 1985, is the current doctrinal reference on civil disturbances. Most tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) addressed in this manual were developed from experiences gained during domestic riots in the 1960s. Many of the formations that are discussed in the manual are based on four-platoon companies. Today, the modified table of organization and equipment (MTOE) of most Army units has only three platoons per company. The manual also does not take into account the new technological advances in non-lethal weapons and munitions. Non-lethal weapons "include methods for individual and crowd control, ways to separate belligerents from other belligerents and from non-combatants, and ways to monitor the separation."4There is no Army doctrine on the use of non-lethal weapons and munitions. The manual must be updated to include doctrine and TTP on the use of the new non-lethal weapons that are available today. Forces currently conducting peace operations continue to identify and develop new TTP to deal with the civil disturbance threat. The Army is also looking into new non-lethal technology and how to employ non-lethal weapons and munitions.

U.S. forces will almost certainly be involved in peace operations in the future. In his recent book, Future War: Non-Lethal Weapons in Twenty-First Century Warfare, COL John B. Alexander, states:

"There is a great deal of debate about the appropriate role for America to play on the world's stage. Some argue that we should stay close to home. We should, they say, only use our military force when our national interests are directly threatened. The reality is that we have been involved in peace support operations, we are involved in peace support operations, and we will be involved in peace support operations. It is up to the President and Congress to determine when and how to apply force. These challenges will not go away. In fact, they will probably multiply with the devolution of other former nation-states into subelements. What is absolutely clear is that, to meet the challenges of the future, we urgently need non-lethal weapons options. Once developed and provided to our troops, non-lethal weapons will offer a wider range of responses to these difficult situations."5

U.S. forces deployed to peace operations need to be trained and equipped to meet the threat and challenges they will face. The international community expects a technologically sophisticated superpower to control unarmed hostile individuals and mobs by applying force that is proportionate and which protects innocent lives.6


1. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 100-23, Peace Operations, 30 December 1994, USGPO, Washington, DC, p 17.
2. Cohen, William S., Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to the President and the Congress, April 1997, USGPO, Washington, DC, p 7.
3. Stanton, Martin N., Lieutenant Colonel, "Riot Control for the 1990s," Infantry, January-February 1996, pp 22-24.
4. Wheatly, Gary, "Other Military Operations and Technology," Strategic Forum, No. 53, November 1995, National Defense University, Institute for National Strategic Studies, p 2.
5. Alexander, John B., "Future War: Non-Lethal Weapons in Twenty-First Century Warfare," Thomas Dunne Books, 1999, p 29.
6. Linder, James B., "A Case for Employing Non-Lethal Weapons," Military Review, September-October 1996, p 27.

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