Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq… The Cold War aftermath has seen European armed forces engaged in a wide variety of operational commitments around the globe, vastly expanding the set of missions they have to conduct. “Nowadays, soldiers often operate among civilian populations in a set of missions ranging from emergency humanitarian relief to crowd and riot control, counter-insurgency and interposition between warring factions”, Jean Michelin, detached to the EDA as an intern from France and acting as Project Officer Engage, points out. But in these complex and demanding situations, the soldier on the ground can no longer rely on the sole use of his weapon if he wants to avoid a catastrophic escalation of violence; somewhere in the broad range of requirements that have fallen on the shoulders of modern armed forces, the need for non-lethal capabilities (NLC) has emerged.
Lessons from Kosovo
For western armed forces, the Kosovo conflict acted as an eye-opening experience in that regard. “In 1999/2000, we had to resort to using non-lethal capabilities during our mission in the city of Mitrovica, where Austrian units were deployed within German, British and French troops in order to prevent the escalation of riots”, Colonel Erich Weissenböck, Deputy Head of the Force Development Division in the Austrian Ministry of Defence, explains. “As soldiers were attacked with stones and explosives, they used wire barriers and other tactics to try and contain the threat. But eventually they had to use tear gas, shotguns and even snipers to stop the demonstrators”, he adds.
With today’s military experience from various theaters of operation around the globe, non-lethal capabilities could be regarded as a logical step forward for military expeditionary forces, especially when operating under the UN flag and the blue helmet – and yet, somehow, their development has been very slow. Currently, apart from the notable crowd and riot control era experienced by NATO forces in Kosovo, they are virtually non-existent in land forces across the globe, despite an identified shortfall.
“To ensure that a potential threat doesn’t enter a protected perimeter, or to deter an angry crowd from approaching a compound, it often boils down to the use of the warning shot, which is most of the time impractical and dangerous, let alone can lead to collateral damage”, stresses Jean Michelin, who is also a French Army officer with significant operational experience. “Moreover, using conventional weapons in a non-lethal manner will usually deter a potential hostile action by an individual, but its impact on a crowd is less reliable, especially when there is a threat of violence escalation”, he adds.
But land forces are not the only ones who might benefit from the development of NLC. The EU-led counter-piracy operation Atalanta conducted off the Somali coast has demonstrated the need for naval forces to neutralise potential pirates before they can attack nearby commercial ships. “In combination with audible or visual warnings, non-lethal weapons provide a stand-off with regards to the threat, thus allowing to identify the real intentions of a potential adversary”, Colonel Weissenböck details.
With an identified capability gap on one hand and a proven operational need on the other, ten Member States (Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden) expressed in October 2007 their will to set up a dedicated NLC project team under the framework of the European Defence Agency. Over the last seven years, and under a proactive chairmanship from Austria, the project team focussed on four main strands of work, starting with a development of a NLC concept by the EU Military Staff (EUMS), in synergy with similar efforts previously conducted under a NATO framework.
The project team also dealt with information exchange between Member States, so as to provide them with a forum to remain aware of national initiatives in terms of procurements, cooperation potential, interoperability as well as research and technology (R&T). The effects of non-lethal capabilities were also explored, with a specific attention on legal issues and the medical impact of NLCs.
© Austrian MOD
Perhaps the most visible output of the project team’s work in the field of NLCs, two R&T studies are conducted in order to assess technologies available for future non-lethal weapon systems. “Based on operational experience, a need for longer-range capabilities has already been identified”, explains Colonel Erich Weissenböck, who also happens to be the Chairman of EDA’s NLC project team. “Additional applications, such as the protection of vehicles and convoys, also need to be explored”, he points out. While one of the studies focuses on microwave-based NLC systems, the other explores optical and acoustic solutions.
These two studies help to provide a comprehensive picture of the current state-of-play regarding NLC technology development, as well as of the challenges arising in research. “For example, the technology to direct a non-lethal energy beam at a hostile individual already exists”, Jean Michelin underlines. “However, it is still far from the technology-readiness level needed to integrate it into a portable, easily deployable, autonomous and ruggedized device that would match basic operational requirements”, he adds.
Although it is still being discussed, the project team’s next step could be the identification of NLC equipment opportunities for Member States, as well as the definition of a set of common requirements based on the available technology and an agreed concept of operation. “This in turn could lead to the establishment of a common project whose exact scope will have to be decided by the Member States”, Jean Michelin underlines.
The end objective is to provide European soldiers with a common tactical doctrine and even a common set of tools when it comes to NLC operations, thus greatly increasing their effectiveness and interoperability. But this will not be a quick win. “In contemporary operations like in cooperative capability development, the only lasting achievements require commitment, caution, time and effort”, the French army officer points out. “It is through small victories and determination that we will succeed in reaching our objective, however far it may seem.”