Best Defense

FoW (11): Enhancing human performance

By Daniel P. Sukman Best Defense Future of War entrant One of the primary elements of military research and development is how to enhance human performance in combat, from better equipment, weapons with longer reach, lighter loads to carry, better physiological preparation, to all-encompassing physical enhancements. Today, with advancements in science and technology, the U.S. ...


By Daniel P. Sukman
Best Defense Future of War entrant

One of the primary elements of military research and development is how to enhance human performance in combat, from better equipment, weapons with longer reach, lighter loads to carry, better physiological preparation, to all-encompassing physical enhancements. Today, with advancements in science and technology, the U.S. military is at a crossroads in determining how far to go in considering how to attain soldiers, airmen, Marines, and sailors who can physically outperform our potential adversaries. To borrow from the Olympic motto, the future of war will demand “faster, stronger, and higher.”

The limits of enhanced human performance needs to be where the enhancements negatively effect a person the day after they leave the U.S. Military. Although the military is a profession, unlike doctors and lawyers, serving as a soldier does not encompass the entirety of adulthood. Most servicemembers will leave service in their early twenties, and even those who put in 20-30 years of service will still depart with half a lifetime remaining on earth. The complexity of the issue revolves around the argument that although certain human enhancements may negatively affect your life after the service, it may extend your life so you reach that point. Looking at the different ways we can influence the human body to survive and win on future battlefields is the next step in the evolution of the American way of war.

To meet the demands of the future battlefield, the means of altering the human body and mind that we as a society should find acceptable needs to be examined. To highlight the complexities, I offer the following “lists of things” that enhance human performance, be it in the office, cockpit or sports field. Think about what is considered “legal” what is “ethical” and why.

  • Coffee, soda, Snickers bars, amphetamines, Ritalin
  • Cold medicine, Human Growth Hormone (HGH), performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), anabolic steroids, pain killers
  • Vaccinations, Tommy John surgery, Lasik eye surgery, Blood Doping/EPO, training at high altitude

As you look at each list, you can see a variety of methods, be it ingestion of caffeine, or a surgery that physically alters your god-given natural abilities. Some methods on the list are banned by the Olympics (cold medication) and professional sports (deer antler spray) but remain legal for the general populace, others are encouraged (Tommy John surgery), while others are illegal to obtain on your own. Some of the items, such as coffee and soda, are even banned by some religions due to the caffeine within those drinks.

An unspoken truth is that soldiers, like athletes, do not have to be convinced to take performance enhancing drugs. Legions of staff officers start their day with pots of coffee followed by the nicotine rush contained in dip and other smokeless tobacco products. Similarly, the use of drugs such as Ambien to promote sleep in stressful situations or when travelling long distances is widely used in the armed forces. Pilots have a long history of taking “no doze”-type pills and even amphetamines when required to fly long distances. A “Red Team” member worth his salt would do well to find an asymmetric way to limit coffee to staffs and energy drinks and dip to young soldiers.

Sleep plans, or as those in the military call it “fatigue management,” is a vital part of any combat mission planning. In the 2012 Marine Corps S&T Strategic Plan, planning for sleep is as vital as “planning for food, fuel, ammunition or other essential logistical supplies.” There may be a risk of addiction that must be balanced, however, with the pharmaceutical agents that exist to enhance the effectiveness of sleep during combat. If those drugs enhance the decisions of leaders, or allow soldiers to operate at higher altitudes, and if that, in turn, will save U.S. lives in battle, those methods should be pursued.

In the sport of cycling, taking Erythropoietin (EPO)to raise red blood cell counts, thus improving oxygen delivery to the muscles, is officially banned (as Lance Armstrong is well aware of) but it is quite legal to train at high altitude or sleep in a hyperbaric tent, which achieves exactly the same result physiologically. Should the U.S. military, in preparation for combat in places such as Afghanistan take EPO, or limit itself to train in areas of high altitude? Why not allow soldiers in combat to take EPO if it will enhance their performance and increase the odds of completing missions and coming home alive?

Aside from biological enhancements, actual physical changes to servicemembers can be envisioned in the future. Today we are able to replace lost limbs on our wounded warriors, but can we add to or change (permanently) physical characteristics of our servicemembers to provide them with one-on-one overmatch against potential adversaries? If we can change the skin composition to be tougher and more resistant to bullets and shrapnel, should we do so? Of course, as Patrick Lin noted in his article Could Human Enhancement Turn Soldiers into Weapons that Violate International Law? Yes” in the January 2013 issue of The Atlantic, doing so might embolden our adversaries to engage in harsher tactics and procedures when fighting U.S. forces. Sleep deprivation may not torture you if you physically don’t require sleep.

Enhancements in human performance, be it physical or mental, can occur long before it becomes a necessity due to a catastrophic injury incurred in training or in combat. If technology would allow for soldiers to have surgery to increase their running pace, or for a plate to be inserted into the knees or back that makes a parachute landing fall easier, or carrying a 70 pound rucksack not all that difficult, why not perform that surgery “left of the boom,” so to speak.

Mental enhancements can be a necessity in the fast-paced ever-changing complex world of combat. This complex world demands rapid decision-making more often than not with imperfect information and intelligence. Should the use of certain drugs to focus the attention of decision makers (e.g. Ritalin) and better prepare forces for combat be encouraged? I am not advocating making military leaders walking drug stores, but if more focused mental preparation and planning of combat can save lives, why not offer the best enhancements modern science can provide?

The question becomes, should servicemembers be required to risk their long-term health in pursuit of short-term physical and mental enhancements. Professional athletes are largely prohibited from doing this, hence the ban on PEDs and anabolic steroids. However, soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors are expected as part of their service to put both their health and lives at risk. As Clausewitz wrote,
war is violence.” The future of warfare will require stronger, faster soldiers who have more endurance; however we must be careful not create a new generation of East German Olympic swimmers.

As the science and technology of warfare continues to proliferate around the world, the assumption should be made that adversaries of the United States and our allies and partners will not limit themselves with ethical considerations in how they enhance the performance of their footsoldiers. U.S. soldiers will not go into combat high on khat, but should acknowledge that certain adversaries in Africa may be as we saw in Task Force Ranger in 1993. Performance enhancing drugs, stimulants, and other narcotics will certainly be used by our adversaries, and we should develop training and strategy that accounts for this. We must also prepare for adversaries who have access to advanced technologies who may use nanotechnology, or even pharmaceuticals such as Adderall to increase their cognitive performance.

Risk of each human enhancement must be a paramount factor in considering what we can do with servicemembers. For example, steroids can cause terrible health problems, like liver and kidney failure, while the risks of eye surgery are much lower both in terms of probabilities and effects. By this standard, we accept greater risk in the now, in that performance will be reduced in warfare; however the risk is greater of catastrophic injury or death when involved in combat operations.

What side of the risk coin should we as a military profession find easier to accept?

Major Daniel Sukman, U.S. Army, is a strategist at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Virginia. He holds a B.A. from Norwich University and an M.A. from Webster University. During his career, MAJ Sukman served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and United States European Command. His combat experience includes three combat tours in Iraq. This article represents the author’s views and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.

Tom note: Got your own views of the future of war? Consider submitting an essay. The contest remains open for at least another few weeks. Try to keep it short — no more than 750 words, if possible. And please, no footnotes or recycled war college papers.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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