An Alternative Way of Dealing with Human Shields

An Active Denial System from the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is staged before conducting a counter personnel demo during Weapons and Tactics Instructor course (WTI) 2-17 at Site 50, Wellton, Ariz.
An Active Denial System from the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is staged before conducting a counter personnel demo during Weapons and Tactics Instructor course (WTI) 2-17 at Site 50, Wellton, Ariz., April 4, 2017. (Lance Cpl. Andrew M. Huff/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

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Those of us who fought in Somalia in 1993 were the first Americans to experience firsthand the barbaric tactic of using civilians as human shields in combat. We came away shaken, but we also realized that the tactic worked.

The cynical Somali leaders who used women and children as pawns in the Battle of Mogadishu ("Black Hawk Down") caused the American people to recoil in horror as noncombatants -- willing or unwilling -- were gunned down by coalition soldiers who had no other option than to fire into teaming crowds or be overwhelmed.

The asymmetric Somali tactic worked. The Clinton administration decided that the nation-building effort in Somalia was not worth the cost of seeing American soldiers being portrayed as indiscriminate killers of women and children. U.S. forces left Somalia in 1994.

That is what is being played out in Gaza today as Hamas uses housing areas, hospitals and refugee camps from which to launch missiles and rockets.

There is another way to deal with such tactics, but neither Israel nor its western allies have adopted it. The potential antidote is the selective use of directed energy (NLW).

Led by now retired Marine Gen. Tony Zinni, many of us Somalia veterans lobbied Congress to fund exploring such NLW systems, and the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate was established in the mid-1990s. By the end of the decade, the United States had a directed energy weapon able to keep crowds that might contain armed elements at bay by making them feel like they were burning up should they cross a clearly defined line. The weapon excites the outer layer of skin and causes targeted individuals to feel like they are on fire. However, the sensation goes away immediately when the beam is taken off the targets and leaves no ill effects.

I led the red teaming of the operational field tests. Consequently, I am one of the people most exposed to the system and have not suffered any long-term medical effects after nearly two decades.

That said, we red teamers quickly realized that, although the system is very capable, it would be possible for the opposition to portray it as a death ray or instrument of torture if U.S. forces do not use it in a well-thought-out manner.

Unfortunately, the Russians gave NLW a bad name when in 2002 they used a supposedly incapacitating gas to attempt to save hostages in an opera house that had been seized by Chechen terrorists in Moscow. The Russians flooded the theater with a nonlethal gas that knocked out almost everyone inside -- including the hostages -- long enough to deal with the equally incapacitated terrorists. The gas was apparently fentanyl-based, and immediate treatment would have been needed by the hostages. The Russians either did not know this or did not plan for it. One hundred and seventy hostages died because competent medical help in adequate numbers was not on the scene.

A domestic example of a botched use of NLW was the FBI attempt to smoke out the occupants of the Waco, Texas, compound of David Koresh in 1993. A smoke grenade delivered by a modified tank set fire to the compound, incinerating most of its inhabitants. As a result of such incidents, policymakers have been reluctant to use existing systems due to fear of unintended consequences.

I mention all this because the next generation of directed energy weapons could potentially solve the problem that the Israelis face by incapacitating everyone in a building -- innocents and terrorists alike -- by giving them a temporary case of heat prostration. Then, the noncombatants and bad guys could be separated without mass casualties occurring. If our country or Israel decides to develop such a weapon, no technology is foolproof, as we found out in red teaming the original weapon. Most will eventually be countered, but the deterrent effect of negating the human shield factor would be worth the effort. There are several things to be considered before employing another such an NLW technology.

First, no weapon is guaranteed to be nonlethal. Some very old, very young or other at-risk people might perish, despite efforts to mitigate the effects. That point needs to be made to the media and the public in general.

Second, NLW must be used in a combined arms approach. NLW should always be covered by lethal means. A medical infrastructure needs to be standing by to help those innocents caught in the fighting, and a public affairs plan should be on hand to help the domestic and international audience understand what is being attempted and to do damage control if some fatalities occur among noncombatants or hostages. We also need to realize that the opposition is not above cleaning out morgues and planting corpses at the scene, even if no one is killed in such an operation.

Finally, there should never be a policy that NLW be attempted before lethal force is employed. Police departments that have adopted this rule have come to regret it.

We should pursue advanced directed-energy NLW not as a substitute for lethal force in urban combat or hostage rescue situations, but as another tool in the kit. If properly used, such a system would act as a deterrent to the cynical terrorists who would subject other humans to being used as shields.

-- Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who served as the military adviser to the U.S. Liaison Office in Somalia and has written extensively on nonlethal weapons.

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