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The Pentagon's New Non-Lethal Mortars Try to Take Some of the Killing Out of War

What is the DOD's proposed new non-lethal weapon for? To reduce collateral damage when soldiers engage with enemies near civilians.

by Ryan Faith
Dec 10 2014, 3:09am

Photo via Flickr

In the world of small-unit ground engagements, making it hard for the other guy to look at you provides an undeniable advantage. Smoke rounds from artillery often mask the movement of tanks and other armored combat vehicles. And soldiers use suppressive fire to create a very, very strong disincentive for the enemy to poke his head up and take a quick peek at what's going on.

But filling the air with hot lead doesn't just keep baddies pinned down — it also generates collateral damage. In a world with an increasingly complex information warfare and media terrain, there can even be an incentive to force the other guy to rack up a civilian body count.

The basic point of engaging in a conflict is to use force, or the threat of force, to change someone's behavior — there's nowhere in the rules where it says you have to end up with people actually getting maimed or killed. But because of the vagaries of human nature and psychology, killing the other guy has generally been perceived as the most surefire way to get the job done.

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The Pentagon has been trying for years to figure out ways to take the killing out of war, or at least to have that option available. The experiments haven't always been big successes, but lately the Department of Defense started fussing around with a novel idea: non-lethal cluster munitions.

They are 81mm mortar rounds that can carry 14 flash bang grenades to a target up to a mile or so away. The flash bang submunitions land and go off in an area about 80 feet by 50 feet, temporarily blinding, deafening, and disorienting folks in the impact zone. This alters the behavior of the enemy — even if they don't run and hide, they still aren't able to pay much attention to what's happening on the battlefield. In other words, their behavior is altered without filling the air with hot lead.

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These weapons aren't perfect. A flash bang grenade can still cause grievous injury — and even if innocents aren't killed, wounded, or maimed, getting caught in a barrage will still be hell on them.

That's to say nothing of what happens if the bad guys are, say, in an urban environment and the have benefit of a roof over their heads (what will happen is the mortar rounds won't do much good). So it remains to be seen whether they'll will work as well in the field as they do in theory.

But regardless, they should be better than bystanders catching bullets.

VICE News' Kaj Larsen contributed to this article.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Flickr