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The Case for Employing Non-Lethal Weapons

Colonel Arvind Dutta was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 03, 2009

    At first glance, ‘Non-Lethal’ and ‘armed forces’ do not seem to go along, considering that the primary role of the military is to preserve national interests and safeguard territorial integrity, sovereignty and unity of India against external threats. However, changes in the security dynamics have embroiled the Indian Army more and more in the secondary task of providing assistance to government agencies to cope with internal threats as part of ‘Aid to Civil Authority’ when requisitioned for the purpose. Consequently, the Indian Army has been actively involved in counter insurgency, civic action programmes (Operation Sadbhavana), disaster management and relief operations.

    Army troops on numerous occasions have had to manage crowds during conduct of cordon and search operations and also while dealing with other agitations that go beyond the capability of civil administration. In fact, of late there is a growing trend of radicals and their sympathizers exploiting civilians, especially women and children, to launch public protests against the security forces. Some of these have at times turned violent. In a number of instances even army convoys have been targeted by violent mobs. A recent incident is of an army convoy getting attacked by Tamil Tiger supporters near Coimbatore in May 2009. In another incident, anti-army demonstrations broke out in Srinagar after a 10 year old girl was killed in a road accident involving a military vehicle in the same month. The recent riots in Punjab after a preacher from an Indian sect was killed by a rival Sikh group in Austria also brought agitating civilians and the army troops mobilized to control the situation face to face. Fortunately, it did not escalate beyond a point and lead to any unsavoury situation.

    Such hostile actions if uncontrolled also have the potential of causing physical harm to the troops. Though the Indian army has, by and large, with its strict code of conduct of using minimum force, done an admirable job, its human rights record has occasionally been a subject of criticism. The response by the armed forces personnel in such situations is indeed mired by the decision dilemma of using a ‘shout’ (which may not be adequate) or a ‘bullet’ (which may be too much). This is an equation that has to be addressed very deliberately since insurgents/terrorists blow out of proportion even the minutest of perceived human rights violations by the security forces. The aforesaid discussion reveals the necessity of building an additional capability of ‘Non-Lethal Weapons’ (NLW) in the Army, albeit only to a limited extent. NLW can be defined as weapons explicitly designed and primarily employed to incapacitate personnel and materiel, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired collateral damage to property and the environment.

    NLW can be categorized into two kinds: Conventional -- tear gas, plastic bullets, tasers, sprays, which to an extent are already being used by some of our paramilitary and police agencies; and Unconventional -- high-power microwaves, low energy lasers, acoustic weapons, which so far do not seem to have been utilized by the Indian security forces. In principle, the use of non-lethal weapons should devolve on the paramilitary and central police forces. However, in some complex situations, their usage even by the army can help in limiting fatalities, lessening collateral property damage, and demonstrating the ability to mete out a controlled and graduated quantum of force, particularly when employed in internal security tasks.

    Many countries across the world are currently developing and implementing new non-lethal capabilities with a view that many emerging and non-traditional threats can be effectively countered with a progressive response using non lethal weapons first. Such circumstances are common place in low intensity and asymmetric conflicts as well as in peacekeeping operations. Countries like the US are also engaged in capacity building of partner nations through programmes such as ‘NOLES’ – Non-Lethal Weapons Executive Seminar. It is NATO policy that Non-Lethal Weapons, relevant concepts of operations, doctrine and operational requirements shall be designed to expand the range of options available to NATO Military Authorities. Further, NLW should enhance the capability of NATO forces to achieve objectives such as accomplishing military missions and tasks in situations and conditions where the use of lethal force, although not prohibited, may not be necessary or desired; discourage, delay, prevent or respond to hostile activities; limit or control escalation; improve force protection; repel or temporarily incapacitate personnel; disable equipment or facilities. However, the spin-offs of using non-lethal weapons need to be weighed against the risks to security personnel vis-à-vis the general population.

    Some situations in which select NLW can be effectively used are:

    • Controlling an unruly and hostile mob.
    • Capture of specific individuals amongst a crowd without endangering the lives of others.
    • During Cordon and Search operations, in some circumstances use of NLW can also help in capturing terrorists alive. Such successes assist in improving Intelligence acquisition. The case of capture of a Pakistani terrorist, Kasab, alive during Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2009 has amply showcased the importance of such achievements.
    • Hostage rescue. A lot of collateral damage by the NSG could have been avoided while flushing out the terrorists from Taj Hotel post Mumbai terrorist attacks.
    • Anti-hijack operations by specialized forces.
    • Peacekeeping Operations. Incidences such as when a stone thrown by mob smashed the nose of a deputy commander of the Indian peacekeeping force near Kibumba in the Congo in October 2008 could have been avoided.

    Overall, by bridging the gap between verbal caution and the option of using lethal force, NLW allow greater flexibility to the commander. When confronted with situations where the use of weapons may actually blemish the army’s human and people centric approach NLW provide the buffer. The idea is not that the NLW should replace lethal weapons, but to integrate them in a complementary manner while conducting internal security tasks. Nuanced use of force will indeed help the Army in winning hearts and minds – a vital aspect in such tasks.