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Research Questions

  1. How do NLWs contribute to overarching DoD goals?
  2. How can the potential tactical, operational, and strategic impact of NLWs be evaluated?

The U.S Department of Defense (DoD) needs to be able to assess the tactical, operational, and strategic impact of non-lethal weapons (NLWs) to inform development of these systems, how and when they should be used, and their integration into overall DoD capabilities. Examples of NLWs include acoustic hailers, laser dazzlers, flash-bang grenades, blunt-impact munitions (e.g., rubber bullets), tasers, pepper balls, the Active Denial System (ADS) that emits millimeter-wave energy to cause a temporary heating sensation, microwave-emitting technologies that disable vehicles and vessels, and vessel-stopping technologies that entangle or foul propellers. NLWs are a subset of Intermediate Force Capabilities (IFCs). IFC is a non-doctrinal term that encompasses NLWs and a variety of technologies that cause less-than-lethal effects. By constraining other parties' courses of action without inflicting lethal force, NLWs can help to achieve military ends while avoiding collateral damage. This report describes how the tactical, operational, and strategic impact of NLWs can be characterized by linking the activities they perform with direct outputs, higher-level outcomes, and departmentwide strategic goals. It also provides sets of metrics that can be used to evaluate those activities, outputs, and outcomes. The identification and characterization of the metrics also lay the groundwork for data collection that can be used to further evaluate the impact of NLWs at multiple levels, which, in turn, can shape their usage in ways that enhance their contributions to DoD effectiveness. Interview-based insights regarding NLWs can also shape how this information is used to influence future development and usage of these systems.

Key Findings

NLW outputs and outcomes have strong connections to strategic goals; with their associated metrics, they can be used to effectively characterize the impact of NLWs throughout DoD

  • Key NLW outputs include creating additional options, constraining other parties' options, protracting decision timelines, and enabling effective action while mitigating multiple risks.
  • Key outcomes include improved gray-zone capabilities, the ability to operate in environments that would otherwise have been too risky, and enhanced perceptions of U.S. forces.

Exploration of 13 vignettes demonstrated the utility of NLWs beyond the uses in law enforcement and crowd-control to which they have often been relegated

  • Particularly versatile NLWs were acoustic systems and laser dazzlers that hail, deceive, distract, disorient, or confuse, and ADSs that provide focused effects to tactically deter, deny access, or induce departure.
  • NLWs can enable U.S. forces to demonstrate resolve while managing escalation.
  • Strategic impacts include improving capabilities below the level of armed conflict and proactively expanding the competitive space.

Four key themes about NLWs emerged from interviews with various groups of experts and stakeholders

  • Cultural and resource issues are the greatest challenges to NLW adoption. Limited NLW availability and competing training demands often force units to de-emphasize NLWs, even when they might be useful.
  • NLWs are often perceived as burdensome to the point that they are not carried into operational engagements due to logistical concerns and constraints.
  • Opportunities for additional NLW usage are not widely recognized.
  • The above challenges reinforce each other.


  • The links among NLW activities, outputs, outcomes, and DoD-wide strategic goals should be presented and discussed in various forums, including with senior leaders, to convey how NLWs contribute to those strategic goals.
  • Work should be coordinated with the services to collect data that can be used to evaluate the impact of NLWs by providing values for the metrics.
  • Work should be coordinated with the services to ensure that policies and concepts of operations are consistent and clearly understood.
  • Collaboration should take place with the Joint Chiefs of Staff J7 on joint training standardization regarding NLWs, to ensure that services provide thorough unit training with NLWs and that NLWs are tightly integrated into units' tactics, techniques, and procedures.
  • Perceptions should be shaped within the military via explanations that link activities, outputs, outcomes, and strategic goals, as well as exploration of vignettes, demonstrations both in live exercises and wargames, and the use of data sets to measure NLWs' impact, once those become available.
  • Future NLWs should be designed from the outset to minimize the aspects of them that contribute most to perceived and actual burdens.

This research was sponsored by the Joint Intermediate Force Capabilities Office and conducted within the Navy and Marine Forces Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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