Modern warfare is often characterized by heavy firepower such as guns, tanks, and attack aircraft. But as the United States faces operations in the “gray zone” — actions that remain below the level of conventional armed conflict — there is an increasing need for nonlethal options.
In charge of the Pentagon’s effort to develop such weapons is Marine Corps Col. Wendell Leimbach, director of the Defense Department’s Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate. Leimbach, a former tank officer and self-described “lethality junkie,” said nonlethal weapons will play a key role in the future of warfare.
“We are not currently fielding capabilities that enable our warfighters that are out there engaging in those gray zone operations to actually compete,” he said during remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Armament Systems Forum in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
U.S. adversaries around the world know that the United States is reticent to escalate conflict, and they take advantage of that through unconventional tactics, he said.
“Lethality is absolutely critical in the modern combat environment that we find ourselves, but the world’s most lethal, incredible force must also be able to compete in all the other phases of combat,” Leimbach added.
However, it has often been a slog trying to convince officials and industry of the need for greater investment in nonlethal systems, he noted. That struggle was awkwardly illustrated during the conference when nearly half of the attendees in the ballroom billowed out as the panel discussion transitioned from guns and ammo to Leimbach’s portfolio.
“The mass exodus that occurred right before our eyes is indicative of precisely the problem,” he told the remaining participants. “While I don’t dispute that the lethality is an absolute necessity, there is another part of the conversation. … [But] you saw everybody walk out the door because they don’t even want to talk about it because it’s nonlethal.”
Leimbach noted that the directorate is doing well and has created a myriad of effective capabilities, but it is up to the various services to determine the prioritization of such systems, he said. “Because we are nonlethal, we are not prioritized and all of those capabilities that are developed by the directorate successfully have languished and do not get fielded,” he said.
To remedy that, Leimbach wants to embark on a new conversation with military officials and industry.
“We are trying to change the way people talk about nonlethal capabilities and to talk about how they actually ought to be employed,” he said. “I like to use the term ‘intermediate force.’ We need to stop talking about nonlethal and start talking about intermediate force capabilities that exist.”