Lets face it, making war is fast superceding sports as the American national pastime. Since 1980, overtly or covertly, the United States has been involved in military actions in Grenada, Libya, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Haiti, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Liberia, Sudan, the Philippines, Colombia, Haiti (again), Afghanistan (again) and Iraq (again) and that’s not even the full list. It stands to reason when the voracious appetites of the military-corporate complex are in constant need of feeding.
As representatives of a superpower devoted to (and enamored with) war, it’s hardly surprising that the Pentagon and allied corporations are forever planning more effective ways to kill, maim, and inflict pain — or that they plan to keep it that way. Whatever the wars of the present, elaborate weapons systems for future wars are already on the drawing boards. Planning for the projected fighter-bombers and laser weapons of the decades from 2030 to 2050 is underway. Meanwhile, at the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) blue-skies research outfit, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), even wilder projects — from futuristic exoskeletons to Brain/Machine Interface initiatives — are being explored.
Such projects, as flashy as they are frightening, are magnets for reporters (and writers like yours truly), but it’s important not to lose sight of the many more mundane weapons currently being produced that will be pressed into service in the nearer term in Iraq, Afghanistan, or some other locale the U.S. decides to add to the list of nations where it will turn people into casualties or “collateral damage” in the next few years. These projects aren’t as sexy as building future robotic warriors, but they’re at least as dangerous and deadly, so lets take a quick look at a few of the weapons our tax dollars are supporting today, before they hurt, maim, and kill tomorrow.
Set Phasers on Extreme Pain
Recently, the Air Force Research Laboratory called for “research in support of the Directed Energy Bioeffects Division of the Human Effectiveness Directorate.” The researchers were to “conduct innovative research on the effects of directed energy technologies” on people and animals. What types of innovative research? One area involved identifying “biological tissue thresholds (minimum visible lesion) and damage mechanisms from laser and non-laser sources.” In other words, how excruciating can you make it without leaving telltale thermal burns? And a prime area of study? “Pain thresholds.” Further, there was a call for work to: “Determine the effects of electromagnetic and biomechanical insults on the human-body.” Sounds like something out of Star Trek, right? Weaponry of the distant future? Think again.
In an piece last spring, I mentioned a “painful energy beam” weapon, the Active Denial System, that was about to be field-tested by the military. Recent reports indicate that military Humvees will be outfitted with exactly this weapon by the end of the year.
I’m sad to report that the Active Denial System isn’t the only futuristic weapon set to be deployed in the near-term. Pulsed Energy Projectiles (PEPs) are also barreling down the weaponry-testing turnpike. They are part of a whole new generation of weapons systems that the Pentagon promotes under the label “non-lethal.” The term conveniently obscures the fact that such weapons are meant to cause intense physical agony without any of the normal physical signs of trauma. (This, by the way, should make them — or their miniaturized descendents — excellent devices for clandestine torture).
PEPs utilize bursts of electrically charged gas (plasma) that yield an electromagnetic pulse on impact with a solid object. Such pulses affect nerve cells in humans (and animals) causing searing pain. PEPs are designed to inflict “excruciating pain from up to 2 kilometers away.” No one knows the long-term physical or psychological effects of this weapon, which is set to roll-out in 2007 and is designed specifically to be employed against unruly civilians. But let’s remember, the Pentagon isn’t the Food and Drug Administration. No need to test for future effects when it comes to weapons aimed at someone else.
20th Century Weaponry for 21st Century Killing
Just recently the Department of Defense’s Defense Contracting Command-Washington put out a call for various technologies capable of “near-immediate transition to operations/production at the completion of evaluation.” In other words, make it snappy.
In addition to a plethora of high-tech devices, from laser-sights for weapons to battlefield computers, the US Special Operations Forces had a special request: 40mm rifle-launched flechette grenades. For the uninitiated, flechettes are razor-sharp deadly darts with fins at their blunt ends. During the Vietnam War, flechette weaponry was praised for its ability to shred people alive and virtually nail them to trees. The question is, where will those Special Ops forces use the grenades and which people will be torn to bits by a new generation of American flechettes. Only time will tell, but one thing is certain — it will happen.
The Special Ops troops aren’t the only ones with special requests. The Army has also put out a call to arms. While Army officials recently hailed the M240B 7.62mm Medium Machine Gun as providing “significantly improved reliability and more lethal medium support fire to ground units,” they just issued a contract to FN Manufacturing Inc. to produce a lighter-weight, hybrid titanium/steel variant of the weapon (known as the M240E6). And these are just a few of the new and improved weapons systems being readied to be rushed onto near-future American battlefields.
Obviously, the military is purchasing guns and other weapons for a reason: to injure, maim, and kill. But the extent of the killing being planned for can only be grasped if one examines the amounts of ammunition being purchased. Let’s look at recent DoD contracts awarded to just one firm — Alliant Lake City Small Caliber Ammunition Company, L.L.C., a subsidiary of weapons-industry giant Alliant Techsystems (ATK):
Awarded Nov. 24, 2004: “a delivery order amount of $231,663,020 as part of a $303,040,883 firm-fixed-price contract for various Cal .22, Cal .30, 5.56mm, and 7.62mm small caliber ammunition cartridges.” Work is expected to be completed by Sept. 30, 2006.
Awarded February 7, 2005: “a delivery order amount of $20,689,101 as part of a $363,844,808 firm-fixed-price contract for various 5.56mm and 7.62mm Small Caliber Ammunition Cartridges.” Work is expected to be completed by Sept. 30, 2006.
Awarded March 4, 2005: “a delivery order amount of $8,236,906 as part of a $372,586,618 firm-fixed-price contract for 5.56mm, 7.62mm, and .50 caliber ammunition cartridges.” Work is expected to be completed by Sept. 30, 2006.
You and I can buy 400 rounds of 7.62mm rifle ammunition for less than $40. Imagine, then, what federal purchasing power and hundreds of millions of dollars can buy!
Alliant Ammunition and Powder Co. is also making certain that, as the years go by, ammo-capacity won’t be lacking. In February 2005, Alliant was awarded “a delivery order amount of $19,400,000 as part of a $69,733,068 firm-fixed-price contract for Services to Modernize Equipment at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant” — a government-owned facility operated by ATK. Alliant notes that this year it is churning out 1.2 billion rounds of small-caliber ammunition at its Lake City plant alone. But that, it seems, isn’t enough when future war planning is taken into account. As it happens, ATK and the Army are aiming to increase the plant’s “annual capacity to support the anticipated Department of Defense demand of between 1.5 billion and 1.8 billion rounds by 2006.” Think about it. In this year, alone, one single ATK plant will produce enough ammunition, at one bullet each, to execute every man, woman, and child in the world’s most populous nation — and next year they’re upping the ante.
The Military-Corporate Complex’s Merchants of Death
Once upon a time, a company like ATK would have been classified as one of the world’s “Merchants of Death.” Then again, once upon a time — we’re talking about the 1930s here– the Senate was a place where America’s representatives were willing to launch probing inquiries into the ways in which arms manufacturers and their huge profits as well as their influences on international conflicts were linked to the dead of various lands. Back then, simple partisanship was set aside as the Senate’s Democratic majority appointed North Dakota’s Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye to head the “Senate Munitions Committee.”
While today’s fawning House members can barely get aging baseball heroes to talk to them, the 1930s inquiry hauled some of the most powerful men in the world like J.P. Morgan, Jr. and Pierre du Pont before the committee. Even back in the 1930s, however, the nascent military-industrial complex was just too powerful and so the Senate Munitions Committee was eventually thwarted in its investigations. As a result, the committee’s goal of nationalizing the American arms industry went down in flames.
Today, the very idea of such a committee even attempting such an investigation is simply beyond the pale. The planning for futuristic war of various horrific sorts, not to speak of the production and purchase of weapons and ammunition by the military-corporate complex, is now beyond reproach, accepted without question as necessary for national (now homeland) security — a concept which long ago trumped the notion of national defense.
The Future Is Now
While the military-academic complex and DARPA scientists are hard at work creating the sort of killing machines that a generation back were the stuff of unbelievable sci-fi novels, old-fashioned firearms and even new energy weapons are being readied for use by the American imperial army tomorrow or just a few short years in the future. In February 2005, Day & Zimmerman Inc., a mega-company with its corporate fingers dipped in everything from nuclear security and munitions production to cryogenics and travel services, inked a deal to deliver 445,288 M67 fragmentation hand grenades (which produce casualties within an effective range of 15 meters) to the Army in 2006. In which country will a civilian lose an eye, a leg, or a life as a result? Weapons made to kill are made to be used. This year ATK’s Lake City Army Ammunition Plant will produce 1.2 billion rounds of ammunition at the DoD’s behest and the company proudly proclaims, “Approximately 75% of the ammunition produced annually is consumed.”
With all those exotic pain rays, flechettes, super-efficient machine guns, and rounds and rounds of ammunition readied for action — and they represent only a small part of the spectrum of weaponry and munitions being produced for war, American-style — more people are sure to die, while others assumedly will experience “intense pain” from PEPs weapons and the like. Back in October of last year, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, and Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, knocking on thousands of doors throughout Iraq, demonstrated that an estimated 100,000 civilians had already died violently as the direct or indirect consequence of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The main cause of these deaths: attacks by coalition (read as “U.S.”) forces. The future promises more of the same.
No one should be surprised by these figures — though many were (and many also continue to deny the validity of these numbers). It’s obvious that, if you build them; they will kill. And you thought that we were supposed to “err on the side of life”?
Nick Turse is a doctoral candidate at the Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice and regularly for Tomdispatch on the military-corporate complex and the homeland security state.
Copyright 2005 Nick Turse
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]