The Best Defense

FoW (11): Enhancing human performance

By Daniel P. Sukman
Best Defense Future of War entrant

One of the primary elements of military research and development is how to enhance human performance in combat, from better equipment, weapons with longer reach, lighter loads to carry, better physiological preparation, to all-encompassing physical enhancements. Today, with advancements in science and technology, the U.S. military is at a crossroads in determining how far to go in considering how to attain soldiers, airmen, Marines, and sailors who can physically outperform our potential adversaries. To borrow from the Olympic motto, the future of war will demand "faster, stronger, and higher."

The limits of enhanced human performance needs to be where the enhancements negatively effect a person the day after they leave the U.S. Military. Although the military is a profession, unlike doctors and lawyers, serving as a soldier does not encompass the entirety of adulthood. Most servicemembers will leave service in their early twenties, and even those who put in 20-30 years of service will still depart with half a lifetime remaining on earth. The complexity of the issue revolves around the argument that although certain human enhancements may negatively affect your life after the service, it may extend your life so you reach that point. Looking at the different ways we can influence the human body to survive and win on future battlefields is the next step in the evolution of the American way of war.

To meet the demands of the future battlefield, the means of altering the human body and mind that we as a society should find acceptable needs to be examined. To highlight the complexities, I offer the following "lists of things" that enhance human performance, be it in the office, cockpit or sports field. Think about what is considered "legal" what is "ethical" and why.

  • Coffee, soda, Snickers bars, amphetamines, Ritalin
  • Cold medicine, Human Growth Hormone (HGH), performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), anabolic steroids, pain killers
  • Vaccinations, Tommy John surgery, Lasik eye surgery, Blood Doping/EPO, training at high altitude

As you look at each list, you can see a variety of methods, be it ingestion of caffeine, or a surgery that physically alters your god-given natural abilities. Some methods on the list are banned by the Olympics (cold medication) and professional sports (deer antler spray) but remain legal for the general populace, others are encouraged (Tommy John surgery), while others are illegal to obtain on your own. Some of the items, such as coffee and soda, are even banned by some religions due to the caffeine within those drinks.

An unspoken truth is that soldiers, like athletes, do not have to be convinced to take performance enhancing drugs. Legions of staff officers start their day with pots of coffee followed by the nicotine rush contained in dip and other smokeless tobacco products. Similarly, the use of drugs such as Ambien to promote sleep in stressful situations or when travelling long distances is widely used in the armed forces. Pilots have a long history of taking "no doze"-type pills and even amphetamines when required to fly long distances. A "Red Team" member worth his salt would do well to find an asymmetric way to limit coffee to staffs and energy drinks and dip to young soldiers.

Sleep plans, or as those in the military call it "fatigue management," is a vital part of any combat mission planning. In the 2012 Marine Corps S&T Strategic Plan, planning for sleep is as vital as "planning for food, fuel, ammunition or other essential logistical supplies." There may be a risk of addiction that must be balanced, however, with the pharmaceutical agents that exist to enhance the effectiveness of sleep during combat. If those drugs enhance the decisions of leaders, or allow soldiers to operate at higher altitudes, and if that, in turn, will save U.S. lives in battle, those methods should be pursued.

In the sport of cycling, taking Erythropoietin (EPO)to raise red blood cell counts, thus improving oxygen delivery to the muscles, is officially banned (as Lance Armstrong is well aware of) but it is quite legal to train at high altitude or sleep in a hyperbaric tent, which achieves exactly the same result physiologically. Should the U.S. military, in preparation for combat in places such as Afghanistan take EPO, or limit itself to train in areas of high altitude? Why not allow soldiers in combat to take EPO if it will enhance their performance and increase the odds of completing missions and coming home alive?

Aside from biological enhancements, actual physical changes to servicemembers can be envisioned in the future. Today we are able to replace lost limbs on our wounded warriors, but can we add to or change (permanently) physical characteristics of our servicemembers to provide them with one-on-one overmatch against potential adversaries? If we can change the skin composition to be tougher and more resistant to bullets and shrapnel, should we do so? Of course, as Patrick Lin noted in his article "Could Human Enhancement Turn Soldiers into Weapons that Violate International Law? Yes" in the January 2013 issue of The Atlantic, doing so might embolden our adversaries to engage in harsher tactics and procedures when fighting U.S. forces. Sleep deprivation may not torture you if you physically don't require sleep.

Enhancements in human performance, be it physical or mental, can occur long before it becomes a necessity due to a catastrophic injury incurred in training or in combat. If technology would allow for soldiers to have surgery to increase their running pace, or for a plate to be inserted into the knees or back that makes a parachute landing fall easier, or carrying a 70 pound rucksack not all that difficult, why not perform that surgery "left of the boom," so to speak.

Mental enhancements can be a necessity in the fast-paced ever-changing complex world of combat. This complex world demands rapid decision-making more often than not with imperfect information and intelligence. Should the use of certain drugs to focus the attention of decision makers (e.g. Ritalin) and better prepare forces for combat be encouraged? I am not advocating making military leaders walking drug stores, but if more focused mental preparation and planning of combat can save lives, why not offer the best enhancements modern science can provide?

The question becomes, should servicemembers be required to risk their long-term health in pursuit of short-term physical and mental enhancements. Professional athletes are largely prohibited from doing this, hence the ban on PEDs and anabolic steroids. However, soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors are expected as part of their service to put both their health and lives at risk. As Clausewitz wrote,
war is violence." The future of warfare will require stronger, faster soldiers who have more endurance; however we must be careful not create a new generation of East German Olympic swimmers.

As the science and technology of warfare continues to proliferate around the world, the assumption should be made that adversaries of the United States and our allies and partners will not limit themselves with ethical considerations in how they enhance the performance of their footsoldiers. U.S. soldiers will not go into combat high on khat, but should acknowledge that certain adversaries in Africa may be as we saw in Task Force Ranger in 1993. Performance enhancing drugs, stimulants, and other narcotics will certainly be used by our adversaries, and we should develop training and strategy that accounts for this. We must also prepare for adversaries who have access to advanced technologies who may use nanotechnology, or even pharmaceuticals such as Adderall to increase their cognitive performance.

Risk of each human enhancement must be a paramount factor in considering what we can do with servicemembers. For example, steroids can cause terrible health problems, like liver and kidney failure, while the risks of eye surgery are much lower both in terms of probabilities and effects. By this standard, we accept greater risk in the now, in that performance will be reduced in warfare; however the risk is greater of catastrophic injury or death when involved in combat operations.

What side of the risk coin should we as a military profession find easier to accept?

Major Daniel Sukman, U.S. Army, is a strategist at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Virginia. He holds a B.A. from Norwich University and an M.A. from Webster University. During his career, MAJ Sukman served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and United States European Command. His combat experience includes three combat tours in Iraq. This article represents the author's views and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.

Tom note: Got your own views of the future of war? Consider submitting an essay. The contest remains open for at least another few weeks. Try to keep it short -- no more than 750 words, if possible. And please, no footnotes or recycled war college papers.


The Best Defense

Kicking the Guard out of attack helos is part of a set of good moves for the Army

By Maj. Crispin Burke, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

Make no mistake: Army Aviation will feel the effects of sequestration and be forced to cut back, along with the rest of the Army. However, if the Army concentrates on putting trained and qualified people in the right organizations, armed with the right equipment, Army Aviation can weather today's budget cuts, and move forward into the 21st century.

A bold new proposal would do just that -- completely revamping the Army's aviation brigades in both the active and reserve components by divesting some aircraft, reallocating others, and by integrating Unmanned Aerial Systems (colloquially called "drones") with manned aircraft.

According to the proposal, recently reviewed by the secretary of defense, the Army would retire its entire fleet of single-engine helicopters, including 368 OH-58D scout helicopters, 228 elderly OH-58A/Cs, and 182 TH-67 trainers -- a grand total of 778 aircraft. To compensate for the losses, the Army would radically re-shuffle its remaining dual-engine aircraft -- replacing the active-duty OH-58 losses with AH-64 Apache helicopters drawn from the National Guard and Reserve, and by moving many of the newly-acquired LUH-72 Lakotas to the training role.

The plan, of course, is not without its detractors. According to Politico, fifty state governors voiced their dismay over the loss of the Guard's Apache helicopters in a letter to President Obama. Indeed, each aircraft lost represents not just a machine, but an aircrew, a team of maintainers, and plenty of jobs, livelihoods, and families affected.

Moreover, the loss of the OH-58D is certainly a bitter one. But budget cuts are coming, and Army Aviation is left with few alternatives, following the failure of both expensive replacements (Comanche in 2003), and off-the-shelf options (Armed Recon Aircraft in 2008 and Armed Aerial Scout in 2013). It's important to note, though, that reconnaissance involves more than just aircraft -- it's trained and qualified people, and fortunately, OH-58 pilots are among the most experienced in the Army. The OH-58 community has an incredible warrior ethos, and despite the loss of a beloved airframe, their expertise will matter most. We shouldn't fear aircraft transitions -- after all, were we a less capable force when we transitioned from Hueys to Black Hawks, or from Cobras to Apaches?

Of course, once Army Aviation gives people the right training to do the job, it's time to focus on the organizations -- perhaps the most audacious step in the way forward. The Army National Guard would face some difficult challenges, particularly as its Apache pilots transition to a new aircraft (the UH-60 Black Hawk), and with it, a new mission.

Fortunately, Black Hawks are far more useful for homeland defense and providing defense support for civil authorities (Title 32). The Guard would be receiving 111 of them to offset the loss of the Apaches. Moreover, the Guard would still be able to provide Title 10 to overseas fights through its remaining fleet of Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks. In fact, proportionally speaking, the Army National Guard would suffer less than the active component, in terms of total aircraft loss (just 17 percent of the Guard force, compared with to nearly 30 percent of the active component).

With regards to the active component, the Army has also taken the unprecedented step of pairing unmanned aircraft with manned aircraft. Each newly-formed Attack Reconnaissance Squadron would consist of three troops of eight AH-64 Apaches apiece. Each troop, in turn, would be augmented with a platoon of four Shadow drones, many of which would be culled from deactivated BCTs. Each aviation brigade, additionally, would receive a company of 12 armed Grey Eagle UAS, a true medium-altitude, long endurance (MALE) airframe. It's an acknowledgement that unmanned aviation is here to stay -- manned and unmanned crewmembers will train, deploy, and fight alongside one another on a permanent basis. In fact, the Army is arguably far ahead of the other services in this regard.

Once we have the right people, placed in the right organizations, the equipment falls into place. If all goes as planned, the rotary-wing community will be an entirely dual-engine force. Students will begin their aviation career in the LUH-72 Lakota, recently acquired by the Army, with a proven track record in medical evacuation and law enforcement.

Old-timers may lament the Lakota's glass cockpit, dual engines, and GPS, but the fact of the matter is every single combat aircraft in the conventional U.S. Army's inventory has these features. We need to seriously rethink what we should expect from students in flight school. Whereas, 10 years ago, the use of GPS would have been verboten, today, it's a necessity, as GPS approaches dominate the instrument routes. Moreover, while students may no longer perform autorotations all the way to the ground, they'll have to learn to identify engine malfunctions in a multi-engine aircraft, a skill which takes a considerable amount of time to learn as students progress to new airframes.

All told, reducing and simplifying the Army Aviation rotary-wing fleet -- from seven airframes to four -- will save the community billions of dollars over the years, and we'd be a much more modern and powerful force for it.

The choice is clear -- proven people, strong organizations, the right equipment.

Major Crispin Burke is a serving U.S. Army officer. Direct all angry comments towards his Twitter account, @CrispinBurke.

U.S. Department of Defense/Flickr