How Technology Could Create 'Super Soldiers'

By Jon Harper

Photo: iStock

Popular culture has long been fascinated by the idea of enhancing human beings. From the 1970s TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man” to this year’s latest “Captain America” film, sci-fi writers have imagined what it would be like to give individuals extraordinary powers.

In the real world, scientists and engineers are working on a number of cutting-edge technologies to make U.S. troops faster, smarter and more resilient than their normal selves.

Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and the director of the 20YY Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security, said performance-enhancers that are being explored could offer tremendous operational advantages for warfighters.

“What if we had an ‘on’ switch right before pilots were about to go into a dogfight and we could turn that switch on? Or right before infantry soldiers were about to go into combat we could turn that switch on? That would have profound … implications for warfare,” he said.

Sometimes referred to as human enhancement or human augmentation, the effort to create what observers have called “super soldiers” is progressing on many fronts.

In one example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has launched 4MM, a project to develop a device that could enable dismounted troops to run a four-minute mile, a benchmark normally reserved for the world’s most elite runners.

“The underlying theory there is if you can provide some forward push to … the wearer, can you make it so they can run faster,” said Mike LaFiandra, chief of the dismounted warrior branch in the human research and engineering directorate at the Army Research Laboratory, where 4MM prototypes have been tested. “There are different concepts for how that forward push comes.”

With DARPA funding, researchers at Arizona State University developed a system called Air Legs.

“We built an exoskeleton … where we used air cylinders that would move back and forth very quickly to allow people to run fast,” said Tom Sugar, a professor in ASU’s department of engineering. “We had people running as fast as 5.5 meters per second or 12 miles an hour.”

Sustained running at that speed would enable a soldier to clock a five-minute mile. A runner would need to reach speeds of 15 miles per hour or greater to achieve a four-minute mile.
LaFiandra said the project is “progressing” and additional prototype evaluations will be conducted this fall.

To enable troops to essentially be smarter, scientists at the Air Force Research Laboratory are exploring the implications of transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS. The process entails attaching electrodes to a person’s head and passing a low-intensity electrical current to the brain.

“We are seeing slight increases in attention and in learning,” said Rajesh Naik, chief scientist at AFRL’s 711th human performance wing.

Researchers need to learn more about cause and effect when it comes to brain stimulation and response, he said at a recent conference.

“We have work that’s going on from the study of neurobiology [of] what pathways are you exciting? What pathways are turned on/turned off to enhance specific cross-cognitive processes in individuals?” he said.

DARPA has a new program called targeted neuroplasticity training, which aims to speed up the learning process for service members and other defense officials.

“We’re focusing on fully non-invasive, non-implantable devises that can stimulate peripheral nerves superficially,” TNT program manager Doug Weber told National Defense.

The goal is to stimulate nerves that play a role in regulating brain functions.

“When you’re training for an exam or learning a new skill your brain is being essentially rewired to acquire that knowledge and to perform those new skills,” he explained. “There are molecules, or you can think of them like drugs, that are naturally produced by your brain that affect those learning processes. And by accessing the nerves that regulate production of those neuromolecules we believe that it’s possible to boost learning or to accelerate the rate at which your brain takes on or acquires those new skills.”

Targeted neuroplasticity technology could prove useful in expediting foreign language and intelligence analysis training, Weber noted.

“People that are trained to study satellite imagery and other surveillance signals, they spend a long time trying to find that needle in the haystack and learning how to develop the trained eye and the trained ear to be able to recognize specific targets,” he said.

Having the ability to increase the rate at which analysts learn to distinguish them is one of the goals of the program, he said.

DARPA is in the process of reviewing solicitation responses from industry and academia. The program is slated to get off the ground this year after the source selection process is completed.

The effort is expected to run for four years before the work is handed off to other Defense Department organizations. By 2020, program officials hope to have demonstrated the proof of concept.

“I don’t want to speculate what form that device will take at this point, but I think what we’re aiming for is something that can be worn and will be not obstructive and can be adaptive to almost any training scenario,” Weber said. “Commercializing it will be fairly straight forward because ultimately the technology I think will be fairly simple to deploy.”

To improve cognitive function, researchers at AFRL see promise in microbiology. Naik is particularly interested in the potential of probiotics.

“There’s a lot of things you could do … in helping improve the gut or the microflora in the gut,” he said. “That can influence neurological processes because there are bugs that can help induce neurotransmitters that can impact mood … so there might be easy fixes for enabling the warfighter [to improve his performance] without having to put on all these different devices.”
DARPA researchers are also aiming to make service members more resilient to disease and combat stress.

Last year the agency launched the electrical prescriptions program, known as ElectRx, and selected partners from academia and industry to participate in the first phase of the project, with the goal of improving biological responses for treating illnesses and injury.

“Ultimately our vision is that this is a device that would be implanted and provide continuous monitoring of someone’s health status and then responds in a sort of on-demand fashion to deliver the therapy,” said Weber, who is managing the program.

The therapy would not be a drug or a surgical procedure, he noted. “It’s simply stimulating the specific nerve targets of the body to affect … some change in immune system function.”

The technology could eventually provide opportunities for regulating troops’ physiological and psychological condition in combat.

“Many of those same chemicals affect your cardiovascular system as well, so your blood pressure rises and falls depending on your level of arousal and your level of perceived stress,” he said. “You could envision [the technology] sort of up-and-down regulating your brain and body’s response to those stressful environments.”

Controlling these functions could enable soldiers to reach an optimal state for performing tasks under pressure.

“Sports psychologists talk about this all the time,” Weber said. “If we had a better ability to sort of keep our personnel ‘in the zone’ then we would expect a performance benefit absolutely.”

The program, which kicked off in October, is still in its early stages. Much of the work that has been done so far is aimed at understanding the physiology involved and the body’s response to these types of devices, Weber said.

The ElectRx program will last four years.

Another way to enhance performance is with pharmaceuticals. Some Air Force pilots already take amphetamines, nicknamed “go pills,” to keep them energized and alert during long missions. Now military researchers are interested in medication to ward off high altitude sickness.

“There are some companies that say they have certain drugs that can help you enhance hemoglobin uptick of oxygen, for example,” Naik told National Defense. “We are looking at the science” behind that.

Naik said a lack of understanding of the long-term effects of certain pharmaceuticals inhibits their use. “We have to be a little bit careful.”

The proliferation of advanced wearable technologies could help researchers monitor individuals and learn more about the effects of various drugs, he noted.

Scharre said the Defense Department is being overly cautious when it comes to withholding these types of performance enhancers.

“We’re certainly raising almost a generation of young folks today on study drugs for ADHD,” he said. “How is Ritalin scary? If we could give a low, safe dose … to a fighter pilot or an intel analyst or a sniper to improve their concentration and performance, why would we not want to do that?

“These ethical concerns have to be balanced against the ethical responsibility that the military has to give soldiers a game-changing technology if it will save their lives on the battlefield,” he added.

Potential adversaries are unlikely to have the same wariness about giving their troops performance-enhancing drugs, Scharre said.

“If the Soviet Union was happily doping its athletes for the Olympics, why would Russia not want to dope its service members if they had the technology to win in a war, which is a lot more important?” he said.

U.S. troops are already taking off-the-shelf performance enhancers that they can buy at GNC stores on or nearby military bases, he noted.

“Soldiers and other service members are pumping themselves full of supplements but they’re things that aren’t regulated and they’re not necessarily safe or even effective,” Scharre said.

One road that the Defense Department isn’t heading down to create better warfighters is genetic manipulation of humans. There are multiple reasons for that, according to Naik.

“Ethics clearly, but also the science,” he said. “We don’t really understand it. It is much more complex” than people imagine.

The Defense Department isn’t looking to permanently enhance individuals in order to create super soldiers, Naik said. When it comes to understanding U.S. military efforts to improve troops’ performance, think of Iron Man, not Captain America, he said.

“Captain America is [still] enhanced when he pulls off his suit,” he said. “He is still Captain America. When Iron Man gets out of his suit he’s a normal arrogant individual. … He sort of remains the same” as he was before he donned his gear.

Scharre thinks it will be a long time before Pentagon leaders would consider approving genetic enhancement.

“There’s just so much uneasiness within the U.S. military about anything that modifies people that it won’t be until this is something that is really well understood and widely used in American society as a whole before the U.S. military adopts it,” he said.

Meanwhile, potential foes could forge ahead with these types of technologies including those that could enable troops to control artificial limbs or other appendages with their brains. That possibility creates difficult dilemmas for the United States, noted Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“How far will we go with biological augmentation? I would argue that’s a legal and ethical question that we’re going to have to” answer, he said at a conference earlier this year. “What might our adversaries do with that technology is something that we need to be able to understand. It’s not just do we want to do it, but if somebody else does it, how do we or can we counter it?”

International conventions regarding how such technology can or cannot be used might be necessary, he said.

“I think we are a long way from actually being in the middle of that debate,” he added.
Scharre said it would be foolish for U.S. defense leaders to keep kicking the can down the road on these issues.

“I would really be fearful of waiting until an adversary has demonstrated some advantage for us to even begin talking about this,” he said. “That’s a terrible way to go about military innovation.”

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology, DARPA, Land Forces

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