War profiteer of the month: PepperBall (United Tactical Systems)
United Tactical Systems is a US company that specialises in the manufacturer of “less lethal” weapons sold primarily to police and security services around the world, as well as prisons, private security and individuals under the brand name “PepperBall”. The company’s weapons have most recently been observed being used by US federal agents against protesters in Portland, but the company - based in California - claims its weapons are used by over 5000 police and security agencies around the world. United Tactical Systems was incorporated in 2014, employs 120 people and revenue has been estimated at $19.47 million.
PepperBall products have recently been used extensively against Black Lives Matter protesters in the USA, and against democracy activists in Hong Kong, and have also been purchased by police departments in: Malaysia by the Federal Reserve Unit, “a riot control force and a paramilitary special response team”; India, where the police in Delhi are considering a range of PepperBall products; Turkey, where officers have been photographed carrying the TAC 700 PepperBall gun; and in Australia, with media sources from 2018 declaring that the weapons had now “come to Melbourne”. While the PepperBall website emphasises the potential for the weapon to be used as an alternative to lethal force, and promotes media stories of such uses of its equipment, PepperBall weapons are used regularly to disperse large crowds of protesters.
The company has exhibited at a number of arms fairs and expos around the world: at DSEI in London; the International Association of Chiefs of Police event in Orlando; the “ShotShow”, Las Vegas; and MiliPol in Paris, an event specialising in equipment for police forces.
The company produces a range of different weapons (referred to as “launchers” on their website), which all fire one or both types of the company’s projectiles, loaded with their “proprietary chemical irritant”. Weapons include the FTC, (“full tactical carbine”) the TCP (“tactical combat pistol”). The FTC weapon is based on the AR-15, a widely used semi-automatic assault rifle. The company argues that this means "many agencies and departments find it easy to use and simple to integrate into their existing training regime".
The “projectiles” marketed on the PepperBall website come in two versions; a standard round ball, and a long range "XVR", which can be fired up to 150 feet. Both the standard balls and the XVR range come in a variety of options, containing different gases, irritants, marking paints and liquids. A "glass breaker" solid polymer option is also available. Images on twitter show evidence of PepperBalls being fired as white marks on the floor where the ball has hit the floor and exploded.
The company has also produced a range of weapons designed for “personal protection”. The LifeLite combines a torch and a five-shot PepperBall launcher in a hand held device with a 60 foot range and a laser sight. The weapon has been designed to be “openly carried during every day activities”, with the promotional video featuring a person walking their dog while using the torch.
In 2017 the company announced they were developing a drone, capable of conducting surveillance as well as deploying "over two pounds of PepperBall LiveX" from the air. The announcement was made as part of a blog post about the company participating in a "mock prison riot" event, but there is little information elsewhere.
Police officers and members of the security service have been repeatedly photographed and filmed using PepperBall weapons against protesters voicing dissent against the immigration bill, including against journalists and at very close range. For example, footage published on the Hong Kong Free Press youtube channel (from 2:03) on 2nd July 2020 shows a police officer aiming a weapon marked PepperBall that appears to be a PepperBall FTC.
In other images police officers were photographed pointing PepperBall weapons at very close range towards apparently unarmed, stationery protesters taking photographs:
Police deployed pepper spray and new #Pepperball gun in protest for 8 months after #YuenLong West Rail Station July 21st Assault In Yuen Long Town, New Territories, #Hongkong #HongKongProtests pic.twitter.com/xUG71wyBEP
— Altos Images (@altos_images) March 21, 2020
Officers have also been photographed using the weapons in shopping malls:
Guns drawn by #HKPolice:
- pepperball gun (left pic)
- sponge round (right pic, left)
- rubber bullet / bean bag rifle (right pic, right)
— HKRev - Hong Kong Local News Translation (@HkrevInfo) April 26, 2020
PepperBall weapons have been used extensively against the recent Black Lives Matter protests, with media sources regularly posting images of police and security officers brandishing the distinctive weapons. Some police departments have also requested funds from local governments to replenish stocks. For example, the Lake County Sheriff’s Department requested $30,000 from the local county commissions - including $15,815 worth of PepperBall products such as FTC launchers, projectiles and air tanks - following the recent protests. PepperBall weapons have also been used while responding to large crowds of students on the University of Massachussetts Amherst campus, with one student accusing police of firing the weapon at close range to stop him filming. In Portland and elsewhere, federal agents have been photographed holding and firing PepperBall weapons at protesters, while dressed in full military camouflage gear and gas masks.
— Abraxas Spa (@AbraxasSpa) July 22, 2020
The company’s VKS weapon, which is based heavily on the M-4 semi-automic rifle, has also been recently purchased by the US military, for use by the military in Afghanistan. The US military has recently purchased 267 VKS carbine weapons – which are based heavily on the M-4 semi-automic rifle used by the military, and capable 20 pepperballs per second – for use against protesters as a “less lethal” alternative to live ammunition.