The Army hopes to have ‘physically enhanced’ super troops by 2030

While the military may seem to be embracing killer robots from the skies and seas, some futurists in the U.S. Army aren’t so sure that there will be platoons of armed robots guarding the perimeters of U.S. combat bases. Instead, enemies of the United States may find themselves squaring off against "superempowered" or "enhanced" troops. ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

While the military may seem to be embracing killer robots from the skies and seas, some futurists in the U.S. Army aren't so sure that there will be platoons of armed robots guarding the perimeters of U.S. combat bases. Instead, enemies of the United States may find themselves squaring off against "superempowered" or "enhanced" troops.

As the need for soldiers with greater levels of technological sophistication and brainpower increases, the Army may try to recruit troops with the promises of turning them into the "Lance Armstrong, if you will, of a soldier," said Col. Kevin Felix, chief of the Future Warfare Division at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, during a Dec. 14 interview. Felix was discussing one of the main themes to emerge from the Army's Strategic Trends Seminar that took place last week in Virginia: super soldiers.

The Strategic Trends Seminar is conference that brings together everyone from soldiers and spies to academics and even science fiction writers to predict what the Army needs to do to prepare itself to fight in 2030. (Strategic Trends is part of the service's ongoing larger effort, Unified Quest, aimed at predicting as much as possible about the future. These predictions help guide the Army's super long range planning.)

While the military may seem to be embracing killer robots from the skies and seas, some futurists in the U.S. Army aren’t so sure that there will be platoons of armed robots guarding the perimeters of U.S. combat bases. Instead, enemies of the United States may find themselves squaring off against "superempowered" or "enhanced" troops.

As the need for soldiers with greater levels of technological sophistication and brainpower increases, the Army may try to recruit troops with the promises of turning them into the "Lance Armstrong, if you will, of a soldier," said Col. Kevin Felix, chief of the Future Warfare Division at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, during a Dec. 14 interview. Felix was discussing one of the main themes to emerge from the Army’s Strategic Trends Seminar that took place last week in Virginia: super soldiers.

The Strategic Trends Seminar is conference that brings together everyone from soldiers and spies to academics and even science fiction writers to predict what the Army needs to do to prepare itself to fight in 2030. (Strategic Trends is part of the service’s ongoing larger effort, Unified Quest, aimed at predicting as much as possible about the future. These predictions help guide the Army’s super long range planning.)

"He’s super empowered, either chemically or through his training. You can create cognitive enhancements for individuals and that may be a way to recruit them because they can come into the military and get that kind of enhancement," said Felix of the soldier envisioned by conference participants.

So yeah, the Army is thinking about turning you into Jason Bourne to convince you to enlist — and then to enable you to fight better.

While the military is famously troubled by the lack of physical fitness among today’s crop of potential recruits, Felix is concerned that tomorrow’s soldiers will need to be both in shape and highly intelligent.

"We’re going to be looking for people with different skill sets, not only being really intelligent but being able to learn in a very different way," said Felix, discussing how the increasing use of information-heavy technology on the battlefield means the service may need to recruit "steely-eyed killers" for physical combat who are backed up by more cerebral-troops conducting digital warfare to take out enemy power grids and command-and-control systems.

One of the big questions raised during last week’s seminar "gets to who do we need in 2030, what type of person," said Felix. "We need to think as a policy about the diversity" of soldiers needed.

"There’s a lot of discussion about where you want to put your next investments in terms of biological sciences versus the physics and looking to accelerate the performance of humans both physically and cognitively. I think that’s where our biggest payoff will be in the future," said Felix.

While Felix admits that the service is still a long way from having magic pills that can turn troops into Jason Bournes, the Army may be able to increase troops’ mental abilities by analyzing their decision-making processes to help them understand how they think in different situations.

The service is just "starting to understand the power of what some of our labs are doing in terms of decision-making, understanding emotions and how [they] effect your decisions and being able to baseline soldiers and test them for some of this and provide [feedback] to them after lab tests," said Felix. "We can produce [feedback] that says ‘you think this way, you feel this way, you decide this way based on these emotions.’ It’s very, very enlightening from a self-awareness perspective. That’s just the first step" in creating these super soldiers, said Felix.

Eventually, troops may have a digitized copies of their brains scanned onto a computer, allowing the soldier and machine to merge their powers. Or we may see troops who are "physically enhanced" by technology that has evolved from the advanced prosthetics that have emerged over the last decade.

"One of the unfortunate benefits of 11 years of war has been our advances in" prosthetics, said Felix. "Folks today in a hospital at Walter Reed with a chip in their brain can move a limb that’s still in California — and that’s today. Push that out 20 years and you can imagine that you’ll have some tech enabled humans."

Still, don’t expect half-man half-machine Terminators.

"The general consensus among the science and technology community isn’t that we’ll achieve some kind of a cyborg in 2030. So if you think that you’re going to have a platoon of robots that are guarding the perimeter while you’re out on patrol, we’re not gonna be there," Felix said.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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