Today's high-tech military has smart bombs. Tomorrow's may have smart bugles.
The Pentagon, lacking enough buglers to play at veterans' funerals, announced a plan last week to deploy technologically enhanced bugles that will enable honor guard members to play taps no matter how musically challenged they may be.
The guard member merely raises the instrument to his lips and presses a button. A small audio device placed within the bell of the bugle then booms out the music that has been a standard at military funerals since 1891.
"In addition to the very high quality of sound, it provides a dignified visual of a bugler playing taps, something families tell us they want," said John M. Molino, deputy assistant secretary of defense.
Beginning next month, the Pentagon will distribute 50 of the new "ceremonial bugles" to military units and veterans' organizations in Missouri as part of a sixth-month pilot program. Officials hope the devices -- developed at a cost of $50,000 by S&D Consulting, a New York-based digital media company -- will provide an alternative to having taps played on a stereo or compact disc player.
Under law, honorably discharged veterans are entitled to a two-person uniformed honor guard, the folding and presentation of the U.S. flag and the playing of taps.
But with fewer than 500 active duty members who can play taps, the military has long been unable to provide a live bugler at each of the tens of thousands of veterans' funerals each year. So Congress passed a law two years ago allowing a recorded version of taps when a horn player is unavailable.
Some family members, however, have complained that the experience just isn't the same, Pentagon officials said.
Simon Britton, founder of S&D Consulting, crafted a crude prototype of the device about a year and a half ago after a friend who does advertising for the military funeral honors program told him of the Defense Department's problem.
Pentagon officials gave him the go-ahead to refine it. The cone-shaped device works by digitally compressing a rendition of taps that was played at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 1999, storing it on a thumbnail-sized computer chip and playing it back through a digital amplifier, Britton said.
"A boom box is horrible, so this is an attempt to keep the visual image of what it should be," he said. The adequacy of his substitute "is only something that can be determined by the families who attend the funerals."
The military will collect such feedback in evaluating the device, said Lt. Col. James Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman. "We're going to listen to the families as we test this to see if it is, in fact, as good as we think it is," Cassella said. He added that the ceremonial bugle "looks and sounds like the real thing."
He said Missouri was selected for the pilot program because it is one of several states that have organized funeral honors programs that draw heavily on volunteer support.
The American Legion, the country's largest veterans' service organization with 2.8 million members, is participating in the pilot effort, spokesman Steve Thomas said. The group helps conduct 100,000 military funerals each year.
"We're interested in what the feedback is going to be," he said. "Ideally this will introduce a more visually satisfying element to a very solemn and dignified tribute."
Dick Flanagan, a spokesman for AMVETS, a veterans' group with 180,000 members, said the jury was still out on the new bugle.
"We haven't had a chance really to study this thing or even to hear it," he said. "Any family obviously would prefer to have a live bugler there and anything that can be done to give the deceased veteran the honor due him in the most realistic manner is something to be desired and pursued."