Military research continues to progress and not only with increasingly lethal drones, stealth technology and rail guns.
Human bio-enhancement for military purposes is among the top research areas with hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in research pouring into small labs through the aegis of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The goal is not just to provide soldiers with the tools to fight the next war but to make soldiers themselves the tools to win that war efficiently and ruthlessly.
Bio-engineering and performance enhancing drugs are already in use, though in a less-than-effective and frankly dangerous manner with the widespread use of amphetamine pills through large parts of the deployed military.
These “go-pills” temporarily boost a soldier’s ability to stay alert, but with dangerous side effects and little real control.
What the military is pursing now is far deeper and promises to have a far greater impact on both warfare and culture as a whole, even forcing society to wrestle with some very difficult ethical questions.
It was in 2014 that DARPA founded a new division, the Biological Technologies Office (BTO). The new projects have come quickly and the goals are so lofty that they read as if they were torn from the pages of science fiction.
The difference being that they are all currently under development in BTO funded labs with actual time tables and expectations for their eventual deployment.
Certainly, not all of the technologies under development will bear fruit, and the public likely only knows a fraction of what is actually in development, but even a partial list of how military scientists intend on altering humanity (creating the super soldier) is enough to give one pause.
1. Modifications to the gut bacteria, digestive enzymes and components of the digestive tract that would allow soldiers in the field to derive energy from consuming the cellulose in grass.
Such an advance would remove the need for carrying food rations into certain theaters of battle and radically simplify the logistics chain.
Recent advances in our understanding of gut microbe ecology make this far more possible than a mere five years ago, and the carryover to the civilian world should be obvious.
2. A careful manipulation of the pain response that would allow soldiers to shut off for an extended period their sense of pain. Michael Goldblatt, a biologist who in 1999 become the head of DARPA’s Defense Science Office, was reported by the Atlantic as trying to formulate such a “pain vaccine”.
The vaccine would subject the soldier to 10 to 30 seconds of agony, followed by no pain for 30 days.
According to sources, soldiers do not lose sensation completely and would still sense injuries, it would simply turn off the unpleasant aspect of pain as well as reduce inflammation.
3. Control the process of memory formation and emotional response as an attempt to prevent or control PTSD. Selective memory-editing drugs that would cause sudden and short term memory loss or effectively deaden emotional response.
Considering both the psychological consequences of war and the desire for less emotion on the battlefield, military commanders doubtless see great value in this line of research.
But, so too would bad actors who would then be free to drug their armies into committing genocide and selectively forgetting all manner of atrocities.
4. Improve mental adaptation and skill learning in soldiers. Learning to read satellite imagery, fly drones and speak challenging foreign languages such as Arabic or Korean are difficult skills that require many months or even years to master, not to mention a huge expense.
Through improving neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to rewire and adapt itself) and honing focus with precisely targeted drugs, researchers hope greatly to increase performance while reducing training time.
An incredible and rapid boost to intelligence is certain to be an advantage on and off the battlefield.
5. Use basic nanotechnology in the blood to store oxygen at a thousand times the body’s current capacity.
Called respirocytes (breathing cells), the current theories call for nano-scale hollow spheres of diamond capable of storing highly pressurized oxygen that would be released slowly and allow a soldier to forego breathing for hours at a time under normal conditions, even running miles without taking in more air.
6. Radically change sleep patterns for the brain to increase efficiency and possibly eliminate the need to deep sleep entirely, much in the way that a dolphin sleeps with each half of its brain independently, always alert for predators.
For combat deployed soldiers, this is among the most urgent concerns and one which is being addressed now with the uncontrolled use of amphetamines.
7. Brain-machine integration that would allow soldiers to control computer interfaces and communicate with one another by way of electrical brain implants.
Recent advances in this area that have allowed amputees to manipulate prosthetic limbs open the possibility for far greater links in the future between minds and machines.
8. Provide super strength and endurance through either soft or hard exoskeletons. With working prototypes already built, the military is refining the systems now with the goal of allowing soldiers to carry heavy loads on foot at sustained speeds equal to a four-minute mile.
Mike LaFiandra, chief of the dismounted warrior branch in the human research and engineering directorate at the Army Research Laboratory, describes it, “The underlying theory there is if you can provide some forward push to & the wearer, can you make it so they can run faster.”
Current systems allow for a wearer to run a five-minute mile and advances in energy storage are the main sticking point.
All of this may seem like science fiction, but so did drones twenty years ago.
Now, forward military units carry compact drones they can deploy to fly ahead and relay information back around an urban combat zone while large, armed drones linger over head, ready to launch laser-guided missiles remotely. Simply put, reality is very quickly catching up to science fiction.
But these advances will also present grave new ethical challenges we as a society will need to confront. One the one hand, if a technology will give soldiers an advantage on the battlefield and help protect the country, is it ethical to withhold it and put their lives in danger?
On the other hand, selectively editing memory, moral decision making, body chemistry and pain sensitivity plays with our concept of what it means to be human.
Not only is it possible that these new soldiers might commit greater crimes but that the enemy will treat them more harshly if the soldiers are so altered that the enemy no longer views them as equally human.
Then there is the ethical dilemma of informed consent in a military hierarchy and dealing with secret projects.
As we stand on the edge of these exciting and frightening new discoveries, with untold millions (or billions) in military funding pouring in, we may be tempted to hesitate at the dangers of what we could create.
But then we remember that the Chinese, the Russians or any number of other nations will soon be faced with a similar choice.
To step back while they step forward for any nation is to lose the race for the super-soldier, and perhaps the next, and final, major war.
Welcome, welcome to the next generation of soldiers.
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