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Work, health, military: is the augmented human revolution already here?

Super-soldiers: augmented humans in wartime

Marina Julienne, Independent Journalist
On June 23rd, 2022 |
4 mins reading time
Super-soldiers: augmented humans in wartime
Pierre Bourgois
Pierre Bourgois
Lecturer in political science at l’Université catholique de l’Ouest and member of État et Recherche de la Paix (SERP)
Key takeaways
  • The US has positioned itself as the leading powerhouse in augmented armies attempting to make soldiers with no physical, physiological, or cognitive limitations more performant.
  • The exoskeleton is not the only option being considered for the military with motorisation of the lower body is being considered, for example.
  • Pharmacology also comes into play with psychostimulants or anxiolytics to reduce stress.
  • However, these increases are not without risks and can have psychological, physical and above all ethical consequences.

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.