KABUL, Afghanistan -- Nearly three dozen troops have been trained on a new weapon that looks and feels like a standard-issue carbine but fires nonlethal rounds that explode on impact and release a cloud of irritating pepper powder, military officials said Tuesday.
U.S. Forces-Afghanistan wanted a nonlethal weapon that coalition servicemembers could use to lower civilian casualties "and help deter rock throwing at the towers, patrols and entry control points" at some of its bases, according to a contract solicitation published in February.
The Army has been looking at ways to outfit troops with nonlethal weapons that give soldiers greater standoff distance when confronted by aggressive noncombatants, such as rioters, while reducing the risk of permanent harm to civilians.
In Afghanistan, escalation-of-force guidance issued in August 2016 called for bases to have paintball guns at every static guard tower, contract documents said, but not all the bases had the right weapons or ammunition.
Under a $650,000 contract in March, the military purchased nearly 270 units of the Variable Kinetic System, or VKS, made by Chicago-based PepperBall.
The semi-automatic "launcher," which has a rifled barrel and integrated Picatinny Rail for accessories such as the M68 Close Combat Optic, is modeled on the AR-15 carbine, like the M4 and M16. That means it should be feel familiar in almost any soldier's hands, making training easier, the solicitation said.
The Army selected the black model VKS with two 15-round magazines each. The weapon, which can fire 20 rounds per second, is also available with a standard paintball "hopper" that can hold up to 180 rounds, according to the company's website.
The new weapon will give base defenders the ability to protect soldiers and facilities "from enemy combatants and civilian demonstrators and criminal elements while also reducing casualties amongst the civilian population by only using lethal force when necessary," according to a contracting document justifying the selection of the VKS.
"These weapons provide a variety of options in situations where traditional weapons are not the best solution, while reducing the risk of fatalities and permanent injury," U.S. Forces-Afghanistan said in a statement Tuesday. Extended-range rounds can travel up to 50 yards for high-intensity and crowd-control situations, the company says.
The rounds burst on impact, "leaving a debilitating cloud that affects the eyes, nose and respiratory system," according to a company news release. Think: the gas chamber in basic training.
The 3-foot cloud of the proprietary irritant ensures a "direct hit" is not necessary to be effective, the company said on Twitter in April.
PepperBall weapons have been used by state and federal police, federal prisons, Customs and Border Patrol and the Coast Guard.
The Army evaluated the VKS during its annual Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment earlier this year. It's one of two candidates for the Army's Individual Nonlethal System, which is intended to replace a range of blunt-impact, nonlethal weapons like beanbag rounds or rubber bullets, according to an article published last year in the U.S. Army publication Military Police. Those other weapons have limited range and can be lethal if not used properly, the article said.
The Afghanistan contract includes 50,000 training rounds and more than 90,000 PepperBall rounds, as well as maintenance kits and related equipment. Also included is 10 days of "train the trainer" and armorer instruction, which was ongoing last week, according to a post on the PepperBall Twitter account.
"PepperBall is currently in Afghanistan training U.S. Marines from one of the forward operating bases along with troops from Poland, Czech Republic and Georgia," the post said.