The Yemen Raid And False Narratives About Non-Lethal Weapons

Last week’s commando raid that resulted in the death of a US Navy SEAL, the loss of a $75 million helicopter, and reported civilian deaths —to include an eight year old girl—has sparked the typical rounds of “arm-chair commandering” from a sidelined American public. Policymakers execute necessary scrutiny of the operation, while academics and civilians speculate how outcomes might have differed if circumstances were altered on the ground. When low visibility raids become highly visible, and civilians are killed as a result of collateral damage, the non-lethal munitions arguments always resurfaces.

Non-lethal munitions are great for policing operations such as riot suppression or crowd dispersion. However, a critical component to these actions is the availability of time. Non-exigent circumstances allow for the use of non-lethal munitions because forces are afforded the time to switch their equipment and modify existing operational plans. This is significantly different than the mental and physical stress associated with kinetic ground raids. When a commando enters a room (typically under low light conditions) he must immediately exercise target discrimination and positively identify whether any inhabitants pose a threat. If he identifies a civilian, his decision making process does not automatically proceed to the retrieval of a non-lethal weapons because he must still be prepared to engage armed and armored hostiles.

The above vignette typically entices the discussion about designating and equipping certain members of a ground force predominantly with non-lethal munitions. The argument suggests that these individuals will have the sole task of identifying and containing non-combatants with non-lethal equipment. Although this sounds decent as proposed, the uncertainty of a combat operation can place forces in unforeseen situations. It would be quite unfortunate if the restructuring of an assault force due to wounded in action caused only the non-lethal munitions personnel to push onward against heavily armored targets.

Surgical raids also limit the overall amount of equipment that can be brought on a mission. Although soldiers are indoctrinated at basic training to carry more equipment than will actually ever be needed on an operation, they still possess a finite amount of real estate on their plate carriers and in their ruck sacks. Any piece of equipment that does not serve a primary mission function or allow the soldier to defend himself is a piece of equipment that will always be met with skepticism. This is why soldiers are trained under conditions that place a greater emphasis on mindset. Modern warfare has evolved quite a bit because of GWOT, but at the most basic levels of training, commando candidates are taught tactics through just the use of a rifle, a radio, and night vision equipment.

During these training events, the use of minimal equipment ensures that commandos do not overvalue gear that is ultimately unnecessary. At the risk of sounding cheesy, “The mind is the primary non-lethal weapon.” Defaulting to equipment based solutions also starts us down a line of thinking that distracts from the core of the issue. In any combat operation, we must accept the possibility of unintended civilian deaths. Restraint and target discrimination are learned skills, not solutions accomplished by swapping gear.

With the growing unpopularity of drones and an increasing precedence for boots on the ground raids, it is safe to assume that we will continue to see Special Operations Forces committed to action with POTUS Trump. These surgical strikes are inherently dangerous and are not immune to incurring downed helicopters during operations. It would be quite unfortunate to be a pilot, relieved by the sight of friendly ground forces only to discover it was a scrapped together retrieval team that primarily possessed non-lethal weapons.

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