The number of animals used and destroyed during military testing, including those subjected to nerve gases and "battle injuries" has more than doubled since 1992, The Independent has discovered.
Last year 11,221 procedures were carried out on animals, including marmosets, pigs, rabbits, Rhesus monkeys, sheep, goats, guinea pigs, rats and mice, by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (Dera), based at Porton Down. This compares with 4,500 procedures in 1992.
Previous experiments have included anaesthetised pigs being strapped onto trolleys and subjected to blasts at close range to test body armour. Monkeys were shot above the eye to investigate the effects of high velocity missiles on brain tissue.
Despite a public outcry, similar experiments may still be continuing. A programme involving officers from the Defence Medical Services which conducts "research into the management of battle injury and trauma" has so far this year used 46 pigs, 14 sheep and eight rabbits.
The growth of the tests was revealed in a written answer to Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, from John Chisholm, chief executive of Dera, which states that the animal tests are "aimed at providing the armed forces with safe and effective protection against specific operational hazards".
Mr Chisholm declines to list the procedures to which it subjects the animals but Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, has established that Dera holds 36 separate project licenses for animal testing, of which six were classified as "substantial" - MoD-speak for procedures involving the greatest level of pain that can be inflicted under the law.
The agency's own figures show that tests on animals have risen steadily from 4,500 in 1992, to 8,700 in 1995 and 11,221 last year. Mr Flynn said he was "horrified" by the increase, and was seeking an urgent debate into the matter.
The use of animals in such projects looks set to surge, with the Government's announcement in July of "Gulf Veterans' Illnesses: A New Beginning" - a pounds 2.5m research programme into the effects of vaccines and tablets given during the Gulf War.
The Government's plans for the programme state: "The research will require tests to be carried out on animals, initially using rodents, but ultimately ... it will also be necessary to use monkeys."
In Labour's pre-election policy statement the party said it would "forbid the use of animals in the testing of and development of weapons". But critics, including Mr Baker, say this commitment is not what it seems.
"What they're basically saying is it's business as normal at Dera," he said. "The Government are making a distinction between experiments designed to test bullets, explosives and so on, and those to test antidotes to biological and chemical weapons," said Andrew Tyler, of the pressure group Animal Aid, which two years ago launched a campaign called No Defence. "But there is no difference. They all involve enormous suffering and death and all claim some sort of `defensive' purpose."
In a separate letter obtained by The Independent, Dera explains the increase by saying: "As a result of the increasing potential biological warfare threat it has been recognised that the UK's biological defence capability must be strengthened. This has required the use of more animal studies."
It adds that such studies are only performed "when careful consideration of alternative methods to the use of animals has shown that there is no adequate substitute."
But the efficacy of such tests has been criticised by groups such as Animal Aid, which says that humans under battle conditions may not react in the same way as animals. They point to a US Defence Department statement that recent animal studies cannot explain symptoms suffered by its troops returning from the Gulf War.Reuse content