Sworn to preserve health and protect life, doctors are the last ones you'd expect to find building weapons for the military. But the growing popularity of nonlethal, "medicalized" weapons is changing such a perception.
Faced with guerilla enemy forces that often intermingle with civilian crowds, the U.S. military is calling on medical professionals to help design weaponry that allows soldiers to subdue crowds and apprehend insurgents without causing undue harm to the civilians in their midst.
Unlike traditional weapons designed to disable targets by causing traumatic injury or death, nonlethal weapons are made to temporarily disable their targets, knocking them out with chemical agents, disorienting them with special lights or otherwise causing temporary physical or neurological distress.
Such weapons are "medicalized" in that they draw on research in pharmacology, physiology and neuroscience, and they require the participation of medical professionals to design and test them.
Although medical organizations such as the World Medical Association take a strong stance against medical involvement in weapons development, Michael Gross, professor of political science and chair of the Division of International Relations at the University of Haifa, Israel, said that "if these weapons prove effective [at preventing undue civilian death], there is an obligation for doctors to get involved."
But many in the medical profession disagree.
"The foundation of medical ethics is the first commitment in the Hippocratic Oath; first, do no harm," said Robert Field, medical ethicist and professor of health management and policy at Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia. "Medical ethics is stood on its head when physicians intentionally create harm."
Still, developing such technology relies on medical expertise and, without it, more civilians may die. So said Gross in a recent report by the Hastings Center, a non-profit bioethics research institute, arguing that this new kind of warfare calls into question the traditional interpretations of a doctor's role in preserving life.
Although blinding laser beams or satellite dishes that make the skin burn from a distance may seem like the work of science fiction, they are some of the potential weapons in the arsenal of "medicalized" weaponry.
The U.S. Department of Defense is integrating the technologies into its toolbox, said Kelley Hughes, spokeswoman for the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, which develops the weapons.
This year, she said, "the services employed nonlethal weapons for crowd control, detainee operations, checkpoints, convoy operations and area denial," adding that Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Cost Guard are training with nonlethal technology.
One such weapon, called the ADS, which stands for Active Denial System, resembles a large radar dish and sends energy that penetrates the surface of the skin, causing immediate, burning pain.
The idea is to cause civilians to flee the beam of the ADS, while hidden insurgents advance toward their target, making them easier to identify.
The system has proven to involve minimum risk of injury and Hughes herself has personally experienced the ADS three times. "I believe, first-hand, that its effects are temporary and reversible," she said.