The Pentagon faced the anger of animal rights activists over the alleged mistreatment of swine after revelations that military researchers have been blowing up pigs to determine the efficacy of body armour worn by soldiers at risk from roadside bombs.
"People are not pigs," complained Martin Stephens, a vice-president for animal research at the Humane Society of the United States. "I think the relevance of this is highly questionable."
First details of the research being carried out for the Pentagon by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), were reported yesterday by USA Today. The newspaper revealed that researchers had subjected pigs as well as rats to about 200 blasts last year. More such tests are scheduled for later this year.
The pigs are dressed up in body armour and placed in conditions similar to those of a Humvee transporter before being blown up. The project aims to establish whether wearing body armour might increase the risk of damage to the brain as the pressure of blasts is diverted from the torso to the head.
"If use of animal subjects in testing results in our ability to save lives or prevent injury to our troops, we're confident this is the right thing to do," said Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for Darpa. She noted that pigs without body armour generally died within 24 to 48 hours of being blown up while pigs with the suits did better. The research also suggested that concerns of increased risk of brain injury associated with the armour were misplaced.
"Is this the best they can do after several years of losing soldiers to roadside bombs?" Mr Stephens said of the Pentagon's pig-blasting programme.
Pigs were used to test the safety of vehicles in accidents until the early 1990s when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), launched a campaign to end the practice.
Peta has estimated in the past that at least 320,000 animals are hurt or killed by the Department of Defence experiments, a figure which doesn't include any tests contracted to non-governmental laboratories.
Colonel Geoffrey Ling, who oversees the pig-blast programme, said it was important not to restrict the experiments to rats, because the physiology of a pig is much closer to that of a human.
Michael Leggieri, the director the Pentagon's Blast Injury Research Programme, said: "The bottom line to everything we do in this programme is to protect the soldier."