Penn State’s Frightening Defense

Standing in the student section of Penn State’s Beaver Stadium during football season always felt like witnessing a war unfold before your eyes. First the band would enter, marching in military-like formation and literally drumming up support from the crowd, while the cheerleaders would start up the most boastfully imposing chant in all of college sports: “We Are…Penn State.” Then our four-star general, Coach Joe Paterno would run on the field flanked by his army of All-American linebackers and various other defensive backs, ends, and tackles because offense was always second to a strong defense in JoePa’s book. Even as a student, during perhaps the bleakest years of an otherwise dominating half-century of college football, I knew Pennsylvania State University was just as likely to be called “Linebacker U” as Penn State.

Yet, upon recently returning to my alma mater four years after my graduation, I noticed that Beaver Stadium isn’t the only building on campus where a strong defense is revered. Just down the street from my old college house is a nondescript industrial park that is home to The Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies (INLDT)—one of the fastest-growing departments under the umbrella of Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratories (ARL).

Despite the generic name, ARL is one of the U.S. Navy’s top civilian research facilities, as well as Penn State’s single largest research unit with well over 1,000 employees (including students). It was founded in 1945 to advance Navy technology in areas such as acoustics and vibration control, hydrodynamics, propulsors, torpedo defense, and other naval related paraphernalia. While this sort of research is still being conducted, there’s little doubt that the focus has shifted to non-lethal weaponry.

‘The Puke Ray’

One of the Institute’s current projects is testing The Distributed Sound and Light Array Debilitator, a.k.a. the “puke ray,” by those willing to call it what it is. The device purports to combine just the right sequence of disturbing sound decibels and light wavelengths as to render the victim dizzy and nauseous. The Department of Homeland Security, which invested $1 million for testing, hopes to see the device “in the hands of thousands of policemen, border agents and National Guardsmen” by 2010.

This explanation fits right in with the University’s Homeland Security Initiative, which is administered by the Office of Military and Security Programs (OMSP). According to its website, OMSP’s mission is to “position Penn State in the lead among academic institutions for military, homeland security and defense, and information operations research and technology development.” And based on the Department of Defense’s 2003 Research Development Technology and Expenditure (RDT&E) Top 100 list—in which Penn State ranked number 27 with a total of $149 million in RDT&E awards—the Initiative is getting the job done. Only two universities ranked higher on the list: Johns Hopkins and MIT—both pulling in more than $300 million.

OMSP also has a page dedicated to the “capabilities” Penn State has demonstrated with its large Department of Defense and DHS contracts. The list includes everything from “practices to optimize military recruiting efficiency”—something I observed first hand, while walking past an Air Force recruitment table set up on a busy campus mall—to “night vision technology to support weapon and sensor development,” and, of course, “non-lethal technology initiatives.”

Fentanyl: 80 Times Stronger than Morphine

When the Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies opened in 1998 as part of a $42.5 million five year contract with the U.S. Marine Corps—making Penn State the first Marine Corps Research University—one of its first endeavors was to study the possible use of fentanyl, a sedative 80 times stronger than morphine. This raised some concern at the time because Russia had just used a fentanyl-based substance to subdue a theater full of Chechen rebels. The supposedly non-lethal gas killed over 100 hostages and hospitalized 200 others. Furthermore, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits signatories—such as the United States and Russia—from producing, stockpiling, and using chemical agents.

The convention does, however, make exceptions for certain controlled substances to be used as weapons or in the manufacture of weapons, based largely on the quantity that’s considered commercially legitimate. Fentanyl could fall under this category, as it is a Schedule 2 drug and can be obtained for personal use via prescription. This makes the Defense Department’s case for using fentanyl and other strong chemical agents in combat sound much more benign than it actually is—just ask the Chechens. It also doesn’t hurt when an accredited university such as Penn State releases a study on incapacitating agents—as it did in 2000—that concluded their development is “both achievable and desirable.”

While the media has backed up this finding with appealing headlines like, “Weapons that don’t kill” or “Making war more humane,” the Sunshine Project—a chemical and biological weapons monitoring group—has been a leading vocal opponent of non-lethal weapons, warning that their usage creates “a slippery slope” that will encourage other countries to follow suit and lead to the breakdown of international control measures already in place.

The typical DoD response to this argument has been that non-lethal weapons are intended for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance or domestic law enforcement. This may be true on the surface, but the U.S. government has been known to use the illusion of good intentions to mask its more pressing agenda, that of preserving American hegemony abroad and maintaining the status quo at home.

Furthermore, when the Defense Department and its research labs say, “the need exists for effective and safe techniques that can deal with belligerent crowds and individuals who exploit innocent bystanders for concealment,” they ignore the reason why that is so often the case. The military continually repeats its mantra that civilian casualties are regrettable but unavoidable. They blame the insurgents for living among civilians, forgetting that civilians often become insurgents when their families and homes have been destroyed.

This has become more and more the case with each successive war we fight. The percentage of deaths during war that are civilian has risen from 10% in World War I to 50% in World War II, 70% in Vietnam, and now nearly 90% in Afghanistan and Iraq. By no coincidence the last few wars mentioned are also the most unsuccessful and unpopular in American history. No wonder the military is seeking a means of coercion that creates less enemies and inspires fewer bleeding hearts to join the antiwar movement.

Taser Troubles

Even on the home front, the use of non-lethals poses a problem. Tasers are already being used by law-enforcement, despite the fact that they have been known to kill people. With more supposedly non-lethal weapons on the market—essentially offering police the excuse of an easy and less messy way to solve a problem—displays of first-amendment rights, including those made by peaceful protestors, will likely become less commonplace. Meanwhile, Orwell is surely rolling over in his grave.

There is still one major obstacle, however, preventing these weapons from being field ready and considering INLDT pulls in $120 million worth of research each year, it’s not a lack of funding. Instead, it’s the absence of human testing. But that appears to be where Penn State comes in. The Institute has already announced that it will be testing the effects of the “puke ray” sometime during the first half of 2008. Meanwhile, according to Wired.com’s Danger Room blog, ARL is “pushing to get approval to conduct human testing at 130 decibels” to essentially test the effects of the “acoustic bazooka.” Current safety standards preclude such testing.

All of this, not unsurprisingly, would be news to the forty-some-thousand students on campus. The Daily Collegian, for which I used to write, has focused most of its recent coverage on Pennsylvania’s primary, which was expected to be a close contest in need of the student vote. Both candidates paid a visit to campus during the campaign, but neither addressed the incredible amount of talent and resources being funneled into the U.S. military by an academic institution that should be inspiring its scientific minds to solve potential sources of conflict, such as water and energy shortages due to climate change, rather than creating new ones. If anything, their presidencies would embolden the demand for such weaponry.

How to Deter War

Obama, who won the Penn State student vote, despite Clinton’s overall Pennsylvania primary victory, has talked about increasing the defense budget—which is already greater than what the rest of the world spends on its militaries combined. He has also pledged to use diplomacy with Iran, while not ruling out the possibility of an attack. With polls showing the American public’s uneasiness toward another war in the Middle East, perhaps non-lethal weapons would be just the incentive we need to support another invasion—no matter the reason.

This may only be conjecture now, with such weapons being several years away from actual use, but it still serves to show that the biggest deterrent to war and violence is not the creation of less lethal fighting instruments, but rather an ideology that questions the motives of those who say war and violence are needed in the first place. And what better place is there for such an ideology than in the classrooms and campuses of our country?

Unfortunately for the school that’s staked its name on defense, the only people calling for change are fans of the football team. With Coach Paterno entering the final year of his contract, many see it as a chance for the university to move on, saying the 81-year-old’s play-calling is predictable and out of fashion. Even so, Paterno scoffs at the idea of retirement and is seeking a contract extension. Whether or not that happens, it looks like Penn State will be committed to defense for quite some time.

Bryan Farrell, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a New York based journalist and activist, whose writings have appeared in The Nation and In These Times. He can be contacted at www.bryanfarrell.com.