Harder, better, faster, stronger: The making of the future soldier

Technology can help build a stronger warrior, but when it comes to human beings, how far can we push the limits? 

By: , /
November 11, 2015
A Canadian soldier climbs support poles while erecting a storage tent at Ma'sum Ghar base in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, October 26, 2007. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

A soldier’s limits are constantly being tested in battle. Whether one thinks back 100 years to the First World War or, more recently, to the War in Afghanistan, the psychological and physical effects of war are always profound. Technological and medical innovations have certainly changed our expectations about military resilience, but just how far should a soldier’s limits be pushed?

Western governments manage the risks of war by acquiring capabilities to protect soldiers from harm and to increase overall endurance during demanding missions. The results are not always as intended. The underlying trade-off is that any kind of human performance enhancement can imperil the health of individual soldiers for the sake of greater military effectiveness.

During the First World War, soldiers reportedly misused cocaine and morphine during agonizing trench battles, as these drugs were included in over-the-counter medical kits. In the Second World War, amphetamines were used to enhance performance and endurance. The Nazis went even further by issuing crystal meth (Pervitin) to their soldiers.

Contemporary examples are just as shocking. On April 17, 2002, Canada’s first four soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. They died because an experienced United States Air Force National Guard pilot dropped a 500-pound bomb on them. The resulting U.S. court martial found that the pilot was essentially impaired by speed. He was following standard procedures for U.S. combat pilots, taking dextroamphetamines prior to and during the mission to stay alert — the equivalent of about three cups of coffee per pill. The use of these pills has been defended as a necessity of modern combat flight operations.

Other innovations appear straight out of science fiction: the integration of exoskeletons, robots and drones for the most dangerous tasks; and biological and chemical enhancements to push human performance. These capabilities will increasingly be used in future Canadian military operations. While giving our soldiers supra-normal abilities and integrating their actions with fully automated drones improves combat effectiveness, there are moral, ethical, legal and health implications involved.

Longer-duration, more invasive options are also being developed. In the U.S., Georgia Tech’s Center for Advanced Bioengineering for Soldier Survivability is studying cell growth and how this can be leveraged for injured soldiers. Such innovations, however, could also be applied to soldiers prior to deployment in order to bio-engineer them to be faster and stronger. A less invasive example is the exoskeleton, now being explored by the U.S. Army through the Tactical Assault Light Operators Suit, which will augment soldiers’ strength and survivability.  

The science and technology behind human performance enhancements is a Pandora’s Box – it cannot be uninvented. A clear policy should accompany these scientific developments because the long-term consequences are not fully understood. A recent report by Defence Research and Development Canada, identifies human-centric technological innovation as a priority, but does not raise the issue of policy. Who, then, decides how far the soldier’s limits should be pushed?

Investments in emerging military technologies are not addressed in existing Canadian defence policy. As the example from 2002 illustrates, some options entail considerable risk. Scientific trials measuring the effects of ‘uppers’ on military pilots continue, with recent work investigating their addictive qualities. The Canadian Armed Forces should employ pilots in ways that are less demanding, for example, rather than funding trials to test alternative drugs to artificially increase alertness. 

Moving forward, the government should focus on the least invasive forms of performance enhancements, in order to protect soldiers’ health. Historically, war stressors have led to shell shock and PTSD, conditions that have proven disruptive and widespread. Emerging military technologies must be designed in a way that will not adversely affect soldiers’ health on the battlefield or at home when the fighting is done. As we look back on 100 years of military history, let’s remember how important that is for Canadian soldiers and their families.