War and the New "Arms Race"


When I was growing up, life was dominated by the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union were deadly enemies, locked in an arms race. That arms race is a distant memory. Today, a different kind of “arms race” is almost over.

At least 850 men and women have lost an arm or a leg in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Their permanent injuries triggered an amazing, high-tech, multi-faceted response. And what we’ve learned can help many more amputees, not just those injured by war.

I’m talking about two multi-team projects, funded by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Their job? To develop a prosthetic arm and hand that will “perform, look, and feel like a natural limb.” [1]

More than 300 of the top minds in the US, and over 30 universities and research institutions cooperated. Their expertise included physics, engineering, math, physical therapy, biochemistry, neuroscience…you get the idea. They had to figure out how to make the arm look and act like a real arm, connect it directly to the nervous system, design algorithms to permit more than 22 separate ranges of motion, and sort out energy storage and mechanical power distribution…the complexity is astounding!

The project had two parts. Phase one created a “Luke Skywalker” arm within two years that adapted existing systems.  Phase two was the integrated Modular Prosthetic Limb. It was unveiled in December 2009, just as time ran out. [2]

The incentive that made this a race was DARPA’s threat to replace any research team that didn’t make significant progress. It worked and the project was completed on schedule.

You might remember Claudia Mitchell, the “bionic woman.” She was one of the first who benefitted from this project. The project also helped improve prosthetic legs, and the arm technology will continue to be developed to benefit other veterans, as well as civilians.

So, what’s the bioethics connection? First, just as this project is interdisciplinary, so is bioethics. It takes many perspectives to develop the best guidelines.  Next, the DARPA-funded team was committed to testing the safety, long-term performance, and development of lower cost arms to meet the physical needs and financial resources of amputees—these are all bioethical considerations. Finally, the goal of this project is restorative. It’s not about devising technology to crush the competition, but to restore as much as possible the loss of an arm. As Christians, we can delight in this amazing use of God’s creative gifts.

Not all “arms races” are deadly. Think about it.

[1] David Pope, “DARPA Prosthetics Programs Seek Natural Upper Limb,” http://www.neurotechreports.com/pages/darpaprosthetics.html (Accessed on January 12, 2010).

[2] Judith Philipps Otto, “Armed for the Future: DARPA’s ‘Revolutionizing Prosthetics’ Project Nears Completion.” http://www.oandp.com/articles/2009-12_02.asp (Accessed on January 25, 2010).


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