America's next tech export: Nonlethal weapons

by November 23, 2013 4:53PM ET

How austerity and the Arab Spring spur new tactics on the floor of a Paris arms show


So, you're a police or military chief who has been ordered by your government to clear protesters from the streets without killing them? Turns out you're not alone. Indeed, the wave of popular street protests around the world against government austerity programs and authoritarian regimes over the past three years has created a surge in the market for what's known in the arms industry as nonlethal weapons.

These are technologies used to disperse crowds that are not violent but whose peaceful protest is considered too disruptive or threatening to be tolerated by the authorities. Although protesters are occasionally killed when such weaponry is deployed, in general it is designed to make life for protesters so physically uncomfortable that they voluntarily flee the scene.

The Milipol Paris trade show, which concluded on Friday, offered a glimpse into the bullish market for riot-control gear.

Here are some of the systems that were featured at this week's exposition:

IronFist 38 mm nonlethal weapon system

The IronFist, manufactured by U.S.-based NonLethal Technologies, represents a pinnacle in multibarreled grenade launchers, which are also manufactured in countries like India, France and South Korea. Like the Samson, the IronFist boasts up to 36 barrels ready to "deploy a blanket of less lethal munitions into, or over, a hostile crowd." Loaded with special high-capacity CS rounds, each containing seven gas grenades, the IronFist can fire more than 250 miniature grenades into a crowd from 150 yards away within two minutes, according to researchers.

Like the Samson, the IronFist is designed to be mounted on police or military vehicles, though it is not advertised as part of a combined system. NonLethal Technologies, a Pennsylvania company, markets the IronFist as a "cost effective solution for rapid deployment of nonlethal munitions." It allows police to "face less hand-to-hand confrontations and fewer injuries."

The echo of austerity is found not only in the chants of protesters, notes Anna Feigenbaum, a researcher at Bournemouth University in the U.K. who attended Milipol, but also in the marketing pitch of the manufacturers.

"These weapons are also being marketed as being cost effective, as meeting tight budgets, so you see these kind of austerity rhetoric in the marketing of these technologies," she said.

ISPRA Multi-Effect Grenades

Dubbed a "revolutionary concept" by its Israeli manufacturer, these five varieties of crowd-control grenades operate in two stages with various effects and boast the same goal as the Bailarina: to counter what companies have dubbed the throw-back phenomenon, when protesters hurl grenades back at the security forces who fired them.

ISPRA's grenades land, spew irritating and widely used CS gas, then explode with a variety of projectiles. Buyers can choose from grenades that simply explode, like a flash bang, or blast out CS powder, a sticky CS gel, rubber pellets or colored powder. The canisters are made of composite fiberboard, supposedly minimizing any risk that fragments will injure those nearby.

Combined Systems, a U.S. company, has also tried to address the throw-back phenomenon with its combined grenades, called the Outdoor 52 Series Triple Phaser.

"This kind of less-lethal convergence ... or kind of modular technology seems to be all the rage," Feigenbaum said.

Condor GL 310 - Bailarina

The Condor GL 310 represents a response to a tactic common in the Egyptian protests that began in January 2011, in which protesters have perfected ways to grab and dampen or hurl back tear-gas canisters fired by security forces. The GL 310, called the Bailarina by Brazil's Condor Non-Lethal Technologies, is designed to bounce around after it lands and begins to release its gas, preventing protesters from picking it up. The Bailarina — also called the Dancer — was on display leaping away from people's outstretched hands during demonstrations that rocked Istanbul's Taksim Square in May.

Samson NL RWS

A growing trend in riot-control technology is convergence, and companies are striving to merge multiple weapons and devices to make it easy for security forces to more rapidly to escalate the degree of force they're applying. A good example is the Samson, manufactured by Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which offers an array of launchers and lights mounted on an armored vehicle smaller than a Humvee.

The Samson combines an ear-splitting "sound blaster" acoustic device effective up to about 1,000 yards, a multibarreled grenade launcher that can fire up to 800 yards, a "dazzler" floodlight and two other kinds of launchers.

Its all-in-one approach "conserves on manpower and frees up second and third responders for other pressing security missions," according to a brochure. A security officer operating the Samson could first use smoke and lights to alert protesters to leave, then fire tear gas and flash bangs, then rubber projectiles or grenades that explode with rubber pellets.

Feigenbaum is concerned that such convergence makes escalation of confrontations more likely and that automatically triggered multilaunchers raise the risk of unintended injuries caused by projectiles striking protesters.

The Milipol Paris, launched during the waning years of the Cold War in 1984 and held biennially since 1991, attracted nearly 1,000 vendors to its four-day civil-defense extravaganza. At least 29 companies at the exposition — including groups from Brazil, Israel, the United States and South Korea — produce or sell the kind of crowd-control weapons and technology that have become emblematic of state responses to demonstrations from Egypt to Chile.

Such companies are not only marketing tactics to put down the unrest because of austerity cuts; many are trumpeting their cost effectiveness to police departments and interior ministries facing their own budget woes. And in conversation, industry representatives on the Milipol floor credited the Arab Spring for their industry's growth.

"There's a fairly unanimous sentiment that the Arab Spring uprisings are the reason for this burst in the market, and that is being used in the marketing materials," said Feigenbaum. "So they'll actually refer to the Arab Spring uprisings as the reason why governments and police need more less-lethal technologies."

Although a surge in demand has come from countries in and around the Middle East in recent years, the nonlethal-weapons market is international: Its three biggest consumers are the United States, Russia and Brazil, trailed by China, Turkey and Mexico, according to a report by the research firm Markets and Markets. The demand has spurred competition among manufacturers, which have merged weapons to pack a bigger punch and countermeasures to adapt to protesters' streetwise tactics.