Washington(CNN) While visiting troops on the US-Mexico border Saturday morning, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford tried out some of US Customs and Border Protection's "less lethal" devices.
The two men, who were visiting troops and sites where the Department of Homeland Security has requested Pentagon assistance to combat drug smuggling, were shown a variety of CBP's capabilities, including mobile surveillance vehicles, ATVs, horses and weapons at the Monument 3 Site in New Mexico, according to a pool report.
But in addition to observing the border security's capabilities, Shanahan fired a "PLS pepper ball launching system" -- shortly after, Dunford fired a "FN303." The "FN303," according to officials, is similar to the device Shanahan fired, but with more kinetic energy.
According to CNN Military Analyst Ret. Col. Cedric Leighton, these devices are essentially for riot control and "designed to fire non-lethal rounds into a crowd."
"Pepper ball launching systems are usually designed so they can be fired in the direction of a crowd, but not (initially) directly into the crowd or at an individual," Leighton explained via email. "If the situation gets out of hand and an individual charges a law enforcement officer, the officer can respond by firing the pepper ball launcher at the individual without seriously wounding or killing them."
But it's somewhat uncommon for the acting defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be seen firing weapons, considering the possible message it could send about where the US stands.
"During his visit to the southwest border today, Gen. Dunford received briefings and observed demonstrations from CBP officials detailing current border control efforts. After watching a demonstration by a CBP officer who was proudly employing his equipment (in this case, a non-lethal paint ball gun), he offered Gen. Dunford the chance to try it, so he did," said Dunford spokesman Col. Patrick S. Ryder.
"Outside of perhaps routine weapons qualifications, I can't say I have ever seen leaders at this level fire live weapons," CNN Diplomatic and Military Analyst Ret. Rear Admiral John Kirby said in an email, writing that the incident was "not the best optic."
"It sounds like it was an effort to be polite to their hosts. I suppose that's well and good. But I hope they understand the message it likely sends," said Kirby, who also served as a spokesman for the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen. "Our troops are not down there in an enforcement role, and there's already a good deal of concern about the politics of this particular mission. Images like these won't help alleviate those concerns."
Leighton similarly noted that this was "a bit unusual," and said, "They could simply have been familiarizing themselves with what CBP has in its arsenal or they could be assessing whether military personnel should be issued such weapons while deployed to the southern border."
"The latter situation would draw a lot of questions because it would imply a greater role for the military on the Mexican border than is currently authorized," he said.
However, Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino, a spokesman for Shanahan, disputed that this action represented anything bigger, and said there was "no broader message."
"During a reconnaissance of the southern border today to determine requirements to support CBP, Acting Secretary Shanahan received a capabilities briefing from CBP agents. During a portion of that briefing, a CBP officer demonstrated the equipment and then offered the Secretary an opportunity to put 'hands on' the equipment," Buccino said.