Why did you choose to study the subject of the augmented soldier in the United States?
I wrote my thesis on the bio-conservatism thinking of the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama. According to him, human nature is a fundamental element of political order and of the triumph of liberal democracy, and in this sense the transhumanist “human enhancement” project threatens the very future of liberal societies. These reflections have led me to focus on the military dimension of the prospects of augmentation. The US has positioned itself as the leading power in the field of augmented soldiers. Indeed, the American Department of Defense (DoD), notably through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has not hidden the fact that it aims to develop « super soldiers », considering in particular that “soldiers with no physical, physiological, or cognitive limitations will be the key to survival and operational dominance in the future.”
Do these “super soldiers” already exist?
It is important to emphasise, first of all, the diverse nature of augmentation technologies, each with their specificities and constraints. As far as material augmentation devices are concerned, the best-known example is the exoskeleton. Applications for this device in the military appear to be much more complex than for the non-military since soldiers are often forced to adapt to the machine’s capabilities. Exoskeletons do not currently appear to be able to respond to the complexity of human movements, and the many possible interactions between the individual and his or her environment and are still subject to the problem of autonomy. But all this could change.
The Pentagon is keeping a close eye on Lockheed Martin’s Onyx prototype, which is motorised for the lower limbs, and the flexible Wyss Exosuit device developed by Harvard University. However, these projects are clearly a far cry from the initial ambitions of an Iron-Man-inspired armour-exoskeleton. Beyond exoskeletons, there are programmes such as the “Z‑Man”, directly supervised by DARPA and which, inspired by gecko lizards, aim to enable combatants to climb vertical walls while carrying a full combat load – without the use of ropes or ladders. DARPA is also working on ultra-connected lenses that offer augmented reality with the aim of “providing individual soldiers with data from reconnaissance drones and sensors on the battlefield” or multiple cognitive devices – with or without surgery.
What about chemistry?
In terms of pharmacology, the US armed forces, like many military powers, have regularly used chemical substances throughout history. More broadly, there is a strong link between drugs and war. Amphetamines (to combat stress or fatigue) were used during the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. However, their use is under debate, particularly because of their side effects (euphoria, higher heart rate and blood pressure, insomnia, etc.). An alternative is modafinil (Provigil), a powerful psychostimulant that also helps to improve alertness, without the side effects of amphetamines. In addition, certain substances such as the anxiolytic “emapunil” or the beta-blocker “propranolol” can reduce post-traumatic stress disorders or lessen feelings of fear.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of these materials and products for soldiers?
Augmentation can potentially meet some of their needs. Material devices can, for example, lighten the heavy load a combatant is carrying and reduce fatigue from long marches, etc. Medication, for its part, can reduce stress or exhaustion. However, these should not mask the many and varied associated problems, particularly in ethical terms.
What is France’s position on this subject?
In 2020, former Minister for the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, announced the creation of a Defence Ethics Committee, whose first note effectively dealt with the subject of the augmented soldier. This report set out the conditions under which augmentation could be envisaged. It recommended, for example, not to resort to “invasive” means that contact the soldier’s body and put in place limits not to be crossed, such as genetic engineering. The French position – giving research on augmented soldiers the go-ahead – appeared to be in line with the ethical concerns highlighted in the report. While the document has several limitations and has been criticised (see box), it advances debate by bringing these issues to light. Indeed, while the US has positioned itself as a leader in research on the augmented soldier, it has still not established a clear ethical position on its development and use. Other Anglo-Saxon countries, such as England, Canada, and Australia, are beginning to debate on the subject, but the French initiative clearly marks an important step.
Is the US really ahead in its research compared to China and Europe?
The issues at stake mean that comparisons are difficult to make. Nevertheless, it can be said that the US has been making considerable efforts for several decades in the research, development, and use of augmentation. Some statements and elements have also mentioned Russian or Chinese intent in this area, which makes the augmented soldier a strategic issue for modern great powers.
Defining the ethics of the augmented soldier
Composed of 18 members from the military, institutional, academic, scientific, or medical world, the “Defence Ethics Committee” has the task of maintaining an “in-depth, permanent and prospective ethical reflection on the issues related to the evolution of the profession of arms or the emergence of new technologies in the field of defence” for the Ministry for the Armed Forces. Its first report, published in 2020, dealt with the augmented soldier. It was criticised in a Tribune1 signed by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, member of the Académie des technologies, Emmanuel Hirsch, president of the Council for Research Ethics and Scientific Integrity (Poléthis) of the University of Paris-Saclay and Kostas Kostarelos, professor of nanomedicine at the University of Manchester and the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience in Barcelona.
“Since other countries have chosen to modify a soldier’s human characteristics and turn him or her into an instrument integrated into the strategies of technological warfare, we would have no other option than to submit to the imperatives of this competition, » note the signatories of this tribune. “Should we accept this anthropological mutation, which relates to a person’s integrity, for the higher interest of national defence […]? Since the army is, by vocation, engaged in relations of force, this committee considers it legitimate to provide the troops with the means best suited to the circumstances. Therefore, considering a principle of reality, it only sets some thresholds or limits that should not be violated. […] At the same time, the report reminds us that since soldiers are duty-bound to obey, even to the point of self-sacrifice, there is no principle that would prevent their bodies or psyches being used with the sole goal of increasing their performance. One dares not imagine the manipulations to which such a licence could lead the military authorities as a higher interest would exempt them from a fundamental ethical principle in place since the establishment of the Nuremberg Code: that of free, informed, and express consent! […] »
The authors conclude that there is a need for national and international deliberation on this subject.