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News Briefing Transcript

News Briefing - Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)

Background Briefing Subject: Non-Lethal Weapons

Friday, February 17, 1995, 11:00 a.m. (EST)

Attributable To: Senior Military Official

Briefer: I'm here at the request of the SECDEF and the Chairman to follow up, I think, on your question the other day dealing with non-lethal weapons. Of course, this is an issue that's already out; you all have already done some stories on this. What I want to try to do is just give you a little bit more information so you all have it, and try to answer any questions that you may have.

I think I'd best start by talking a little bit about where these things came from and why they got into this. We didn't see them as a big deal, but it's obviously been picked up as a story and so we'll try to give you some bits and pieces.

First of all, I want to, as I said, talk about the purpose and why we have these things as part of our force that's over supporting the UNOSOM withdrawal.

You've got to remember what the objectives of the overall operation are: One, to get the UNOSOM forces out; two, to extract the equipment that we have that we leased to the UNOSOM forces, and to do this all with no loss of life. That doesn't just apply to us, but it applies obviously to the Somalis as well.

Right now, with the kind of a force that we would normally assemble to do this kind of an operation, the range of things available to the commander to carry out this mission of trying to do the two basic tasks with no loss of life is very difficult because most of the weapons available to the Marines that are there -- as well as the airmen and the naval forces that are offshore -- are obviously lethal in nature. So if you're dealing with a situation in which you're trying to defuse things and keep things quiet and prevent loss of life in addition to providing protection for yourself, we have a range of doing nothing to using the sorts of weapons the Marines would normally carry in.

Once the 1st MEF got the task to do this job in Somalia, the issue was raised by a Marine reserve unit that works with the 1st MEF, of which members in that Marine reserve unit are LAPD police people and they had had dealings with these types of non-lethal weapons for crowd control and crowd dispersal. And so they brought up the fact of the state-of-the art now available to police departments around the country to deal in a non-lethal way... And you'll find out, I'll say, it's really a less lethal way because these weapons if improperly used could be lethal. And I'll try to describe that in a little more detail here in just a minute. But that there are things out there, state-of-the-art, that could prove very useful to the Marines as they try to carry out the operation.

And so the Marines -- General Zinni and his people -- did some looking into this and determined that this would make some sense if they could procure the weapons -- get properly trained on them to make use of them in this operation. So that's exactly what's taken place.

I'll describe the weapons to you here in just a minute, but let me start first by saying this is not a fly-by-night operation. We haven't just taken these weapons -- procured them, given them to the Marines -- and said go try them out in Somalia. They've done extensive training. We sent folks over... I say "we" did -- the Marines sent people over, some of which were some people from this Marine reserve unit who are trained on these weapons, to do the training of the 1st MEF people that will employ these weapons in Somalia if, they are in fact, required.

They were practiced with, as we did our preparation for this particular operation during the operations off of Kenya. They used the weapons -- these non-lethal weapons -- to ensure that they could be used in the right way to determine exactly what the effects would be and to gain some experience with them. And so the Marines who will employ these weapons if necessary have got what we think is the necessary training prior to their possible use in Somalia. And I think that's a very important point to understand.

What kinds of weapons are we talking about? Let me just briefly run through some of them. This list is fairly well known but to be sure that we cover precisely what the Marines have available to them.

A stinger grenade is a small grenade-type weapon. It's used for crowd dispersal. It has some rubber pellets in it, and the idea there would be if a crowd were starting to assemble which clearly were showing signs of doing some things that might possibly endanger lives, you could use these stinger grenades to disperse the crowd. When the pellet hits you, it causes like a bee sting or maybe a BB pellet hitting you so it could cause bruising. And, clearly, if the weapon went off and you had it in your hand, it could cause a lot more serious damage than that to you. But that's not what the weapon is designed for. So, again, that's a crowd dispersal kind of a weapon.

There are a series of projectiles that go with 40-millimeter grenade launchers and a 12-gauge shotgun which are really, again, designed for crowd dispersal. There's a thing called a wooden batten and some rubber pellets and a foam baton that is a small pellet about that big. The design of these things are to fire out of these things down at the ground, to ricochet them off the ground and to hit people in the legs to cause them to disperse. That is true with both the 40-millimeter projectiles coming out of the grenade launcher as well as the 12-gauge projectiles out of a shotgun.

Q: What do you call these projectiles that bounce off the ground?

A: Well, they're made of wood and foam and they're -- is the terminology "batten" or "baton?" I've got a bunch of Marines in the back. Do you all know?

Marine: A wooden baton. It's just called a baton.

Briefer: And one of them is made of wood, the other is made of rubber. And they're probably about this size -- smaller -- obviously in the 12-gauge. But they're little blocks of wood or little blocks of rubber. And when they fire and they ricochet them off the ground, or ricochet them into the legs of the crowd. And, again, if one of them hits you, you're going to get some small bruising from it. But the idea is to dispense the crowd -- disperse the crowd as these weapons are dispensed.

The other type of system that the Marines are taking in are foam type systems. One of them is called the barrier foam system and this produces a substance very similar to soap suds when you look at. And let me just give you a feel for the size area that you can cover with it. I've got some detail back here that will tell me that. Hang on just a second.

It will cover an area about 200 feet long and about 20 feet wide and around three to four feet high. And the purpose of this foam is literally to help other barriers that may exist for crowd control. And you lay this substance down. If the crowd comes in contact with it... It's laced with a tear gas agent and so you get the effects of tear gas if you get into this stuff. So it's used basically for crowd control.

Q: How is it laid down?

A: It's laid down with a dispenser, a fairly large piece of equipment -- not huge, but it's a generator that... It's a piece of equipment that's carried by the Marines and it's not all that small. Let me see if I've got a thing here that talks to the size. We've got a 275-gallon water tank with it and it dispenses about 30 gallons of foam, pumping it through a reservoir through a water pump system. So this is not huge, but it's not small, when you're talking about something that holds 275 gallons of water.

Q: But it's mobile.

A: It's mobile. Obviously. And I'll talk to you about how we plan to use this and who's going to use it here in just a minute.

Q: Are these light? Like soap bubbles which could be blown away by the wind?

A: No, it's a heavier substance than that, but it gives the appearance of lightness and gives the appearance of soap suds. If you saw it out there, your first thought would be this is soapy suds but it's not going to blow away. It's not as light as soap suds would be.

Q: Is it sticky?

A: No, it's not particularly sticky. It's going to get on you if you walk through it like soap suds would, okay?

Now, let me go on to the next one, which is sticky foam. And this is dispensed from a high-pressure gun system that one Marine could carry. And it puts out a real sticky, tacky substance and is designed to restrict the movement of somebody. The terminology I've heard is "high tech lasso" and what that simply means is if you threw a lasso around somebody and constrained their movement, this is a high tech version of that. It has somewhat the same effect. It constrains the movement of an individual.

So those are the basic non-lethal systems that are out there that will be taken into operation by the Marines. In terms of how they will be employed, what they have done is they have trained about a company-sized element to use these weapons. So these are not weapons that all of the Marines have. They have designated specific people to be trained on these weapons and they will respond much like a response cell would. If something appears to be happening, the Marines will take this unit, deploy it to the scene so it could be used if necessary.

And so I think that's another important point to remember: every marine there is not going to be equipped with these kinds of weapons. They are given to various certain people who have received very detailed training on them, they know how to employ them. And they'll be employed more as a quick reaction force if something precipitates their need at some point during the operation while the Marines are ashore. OK. I think with that, I will stop and see if there are any questions any of you may have.

Q: These things have been employed, you say, by urban police units, so they've been tested for any kind of health effects -- or anything, if people breathe this stuff in -- or anything like that?

A: Yes. All that was considered, as you all have already reported, here in this building to be sure that we understood fully the implications of using these weapons and what the environmental problems were. Clearly that had already been done to the satisfaction of the police departments in this country that already have them. So we were pretty confident that wouldn't be a problem, but we still went and looked at that from our perspective to be sure we weren't asking our Marines to use something that might be a problem down the road.

Q: You mentioned in your opening statement that there were some risks of lethality. Can you tell us what that is?

A: Well, there's... If you take, for example, these types of systems that I've described and fire them at somebody inside of the optimal range of their utilization, in other words, if I fired one of these pellets coming out of a 40- millimeter launcher point blank at you at close range, it could kill you. And so that's why they have to be properly used and that's why the training was so important. And it will clearly be an important factor if the Marines are called to use the weapons. They're going to ensure -- based on the training they have had -- that they are used at the proper ranges so that we don't achieve an undesirable effect from them.

Q: Apparently one of the complications with the sticky foam is how do you get it off. I mean, if you're squirting this at people who are bare-chested and bare-footed, what happens? Do they wear it off?

A: Yes, it doesn't cause any permanent damage to you but it is not easy to get off. You are exactly right.

Q: Will it take your skin off when you pull it?

A: No. I mean, if you ripped it off, it probably would do that. But if you take it off slowly and work at it -- it's a very lengthy process to get it off yourself but what the heck, they've got lots of time, you know? [Laughter] Not to be facetious because it's a very valid question. If you get this stuff on somebody, is it on him for life or her or is it something that you can get off? It is removable, it is not easily removable. It wouldn't make any sense to make it easy to remove but it is not going to cause permanent damage to the skin.

Q: Just one more on that small detail. If the Marines get it on them, do they carry a solvent that can easily get it off?

A: To be honest with you, I don't have the answer to the question. I think that that makes good sense that that is in fact the case they have a way to we don't want to shoot each other with this.

Q: If you happen to have a guy who accidentally hits the wrong trigger, you could have a real problem there.

A: I totally agree with that and I don't have any details on that specific point, John. But I can certainly find out and I would say it makes good sense that they would have something like that.

Q: Excuse me. I just want to make sure what you're talking about. You're talking about it's not easily removable, that's the sticky substance.

A: The sticky foam versus the barrier foam.

Q: How about the barrier foam?

A: That comes off quickly. And, of course, the purpose of that is to create a barrier. And if somebody tries to penetrate it, it is laced with the tear gas substance and that causes them to back away. It's not the presence of the foam itself, it's the deterrent. It's the laced tear gas in the foam that creates the problem.

Q: Was there a cost of procurement for all of this material and can you quantify in some way how much was bought? And were there any waivers that were required in order to bring on this sort of technology into an operational force that were required?

A: The cost figures I don't have for you, but I would say there is a cost, there's no question about that. There is, as I said, it's there in... I wouldn't say minimal numbers although it's relatively small because we've only put it into certain elements -- a quick reaction force to respond to the scene. There's not a large amount of it. So the cost is low and I don't have an exact amount for you. But if that's important to you, we could try to find out what the Marines paid for that. There was no waiver required to procure this stuff. It's something that obviously could be done locally or they wouldn't have done it.

Q: Did you get it from the LAPD or the police department?

A: No, I think they went to a contractor. They went to the same contractors that the various police that are using this type of stuff went to. We went and dealt directly with contractors.

Q: Two questions. First, you went into it to some degree... I know they're on the LAPD, but it's my understanding, and if you could just correct me if I'm wrong, that this was brought to the attention of the Marine Corps by some LAPD officers who are Marine Corps reservists and were trained in the use of this?

A: Right.

Q: They then went to the Marine Corps thinking that it might be useful and the Marine Corps picked it up from them?

A: I thought that's what I said. Maybe -- if I said it differently than that -- that's exactly what happened. The LAPD have members who are reservists in the Marine Corps. They therefore knew about this and, being Marine Corps reservists that work with the 1st MEF, they brought this to the attention of... Once the mission was clear the 1st MEF was going to have the mission of Somalia, they raised the issue with the MEF commander.

Q: Okay. And the sticky foam gun or apparatus, are we talking about a backpack type of apparatus?

A: Yes. I mean, it can be carried. The gun is probably about that long, carried on a sling, held by one individual.

Q: That you can carry over your shoulder?

A: Yes. I mean, it's a self-contained thing that one person carries.

Q: Like a flame-thrower type of apparatus?

A: No, I wouldn't -- don't draw that conclusion, please. In terms of portability.

Q: General, could you talk a little bit about the environment in which the mission is going to take place? Secretary Perry has talked about units going in but with their guns pointed backwards. I mean, we're talking about the area around the airport and the port. But what connection will there be between the Marines and the Somalis in general?

A: Very little.

Q: Do you expect them to basically jump the fences while this is going on?

A: No, we don't. And, again, this is just trying to give... I mean, we all have these plans and certainly General Zinni has thought this through very carefully as the combined force commander, and he will then pick up the UNOSOM piece, as we talked before, when he goes ashore. He will be the overall commander both at sea and shore once the operation takes place and our Marines go ashore. And so, clearly, in thinking this thing through, they have done enough reconnaissance to determine exactly where we want to be.

We are trying to stay totally disconnected, if possible, from the Somalis. We do not anticipate any of this having to be used, but we've tried to give the commander a range of options other than lethal force in trying to keep this thing as low key as we can and try to prevent an incident from happening before it gets to the point where lethal force might become a player. So that's the objective of this and I think it's a good idea. It's good that it was thought of and I hope it doesn't have to be used, but it is certainly there if it does.

Q: Would you address the issue of why this was surrounded in so much secrecy and why there was such tremendous reluctance to discuss this? This is not like nuclear weapons.

A: I don't know where there was reluctance. When I had my backgrounder with you all, I had all the information. I was waiting for a question and never got it. I mean, I would have been glad to talk about it. I didn't raise the issue because it wasn't talked about. I literally had the data with me and was prepared to talk to the use of these weapons.

Q: In detail?

A: Sure. I mean, I could have given you the laydown I gave you right now.

Q: I'm astounded because, as you well know, the rest of this building has been clammed up tight on that subject.

A: Well --

Q: Maybe next time you could just run down the talking points.

A: Just tell you what I have in my book? OK.

Contact:  Michael Stebbins (mstebbins@fas.org)
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