In 2014, former President Obama joked that the United States was “creating Iron Man.” In reality, he was announcing the creation of high-tech manufacturing hubs, but that does not mean that there wasn’t a sliver of truth to his statement. The timing of this news coincided with the development of the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), an armor-like exoskeleton designed to grant its wearer superhuman strength and perception.
Critics charged that TALOS was about as likely to work as science fiction; the suit was originally envisioned to be bulletproof, weaponized, have the ability to monitor vitals, and give the wearer enhanced strength and perception. The critics may have been correct. In February 2019, the United States Special Operations Command announced that the TALOS “supersuit” concept as originally envisaged was not feasible.
Yet despite the failure of the TALOS project, recent developments from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) suggest that dreams of technologically enhanced warfighters may not be too far off. Their latest effort, known as Advanced Acclimation and Protection Tool for Environmental Readiness (ADAPTER), involves cyborg implants to toughen soldiers against two of the most common health issues in modern warfare: limited access to food and water, on the one hand, and sleep disruption, on the other. Each implant will be a miniature factory full of bacteria stored in the gut, producing therapeutic substances on demand. In essence, it is an antibiotic to counteract food poisoning that can be released into the soldier’s stomach with the push of a button. Another DARPA-funded program, the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology Program (N3), aims to provide able-bodied service members with bi-directional brain-machine interfaces (BCIs).
What exactly does this mean? In short, a BCI enables a bidirectional communication path between a brain and an external device (or, potentially, from brain to brain) via an implant attached to both neurons in the brain and an external receptor. This communication path provides the brain with input and output channels that are dependent on brain activity rather than on peripheral nerves and muscles, which eliminates the need for conventional delivery mechanisms such as joysticks or keyboards. The signal acquisition can be invasive or non-invasive and involves methods that use microelectrodes directly implanted into regions of the brain or extended across the surface of the brain.
Al Emondi, the director of the N3, states what he envisions to be the military purpose of these devices: “Working with drones and swarms of drones, operating at the speed of thought rather than through mechanical devices—those types of things are what these devices are really for.” In essence, controlling electronic machines using only one’s mind.
By using a combination of these technologies, the U.S. military may be closer to producing Obama’s “Iron Man” than originally thought. According to a recent Department of Defense study, by 2050, the U.S. military could have the ability to implant sophisticated machine technology into select combat troops for enhanced performance capabilities such as super eyesight and advanced brain function for controlling unmanned drones and other weapon systems. Future technologies could also include direct neural data exchange between humans and extreme auditory capabilities, allowing soldiers to communicate through only their thoughts across miles of combat. Pharmaceutical enhancements may be developed as well, with soldiers gaining immunity to pain.
The United States is not alone in their curiosity. In a more drastic and futuristic scenario, China has been thought to have begun altering soldiers using the gene-editing technique CRISPR, which China has already used to edit the genomes of two embryos to make them resistant to HIV. While the United States has shown interest in hypothesizing how CRISPR could alter genes to protect American soldiers from harmful radiation, the future of genetically-modified super soldiers might be more imminent and harmful than originally thought. China could create an army of individuals who have been genetically crafted to be the best fighting force imaginable, with a genetic makeup that they determine to be the most lethal, most athletic, or most intelligent.
These technological enhancements are just another step in the historical tradition of enhancing soldiers with the most recent and up-to-date technological innovations. The novelty, however, lies in situations where technologies alter human capabilities and functionality. The switch from swords to guns in the 16th and 17th centuries saw an increase in lethality, but it did not allow humans to perform functions beyond human capacity; in essence, technological innovation occurred outside of the human as opposed to within.
Much attention has already been paid to problems with consent, and whether or not a soldier can reasonably be expected to decline the offer of an enhancement from a superior officer. There are other considerations, however, that are scant in super soldier discussions and which will ultimately change the future of warfare and its aftermath. Adequate regulations must be put in place before advancements in technology force countries to decide between ethics and military victory.
Moral hazards and altered states
Technological enhancements are typically rolled out in a select few or specialized forces. These soldiers may have higher rates of survival—if modified with such enhancements as advanced eyesight, bacteria that prevent food poisoning, or BCIs—and may be more lethal or tactically superior due to improved cognitive decision-making through implants or pharmaceuticals. There is then, however, a “moral hazard” problem: Commanding officers may place these enhanced soldiers in more perilous situations that require elite forces, as already happens with the Navy SEALs or other specialized forces. While SEALs are selected for their leadership and athletic skills, among many others, enhanced soldiers might be chosen for their willingness to receive the enhancement alone. The question arises: By consenting to these enhancements, do these individuals understand that they will be placed in more perilous situations? Further, are commanding officers willing to engage in more harmful or destructive operations knowing that they have enhanced warfighters? Discussion of this ethical challenge appears to be lacking in recent writings on “super” or enhanced soldiers.
Moreover, the implementation of these technological enhancements is both costly and time-consuming, and those individuals with enhancements are thus a high-value asset to the military, both scientifically and as combatants. Arguably, commanding officers should be less willing to risk these individuals in combat situations due to the amount of money, science, and resources that have been invested in them. But that produces yet a different set of challenges. A distinction between “super” soldiers and “regular” soldiers may emerge, creating a hierarchy structure that emphasizes the value of enhanced soldiers, with unenhanced troops seen as cheaper and more expendable in combat.
While the super soldier may not have the same inherent capabilities as a member of an elite force, they offer a unique skill set that commanders might need to utilize in certain combat situations. In fact, certain military operations might be specifically designed to be carried out by soldiers with natural dark vision, immunity to pain, BCI connections between the soldier and a swarm of drones, or implanted anti-bacterial pouches.
When discussing military enhancements, conversations almost exclusively focus on the effects these enhancements will have on combat. However, these technologies, especially those which require invasive surgery such as certain BCIs, will have lasting effects throughout one’s life. Presently, the main scientific challenge is making military enhancements to warfighters temporary. If the scientists fail, these super soldiers will return to their countries as veterans with technological enhancements, raising a number of questions and ethical considerations around employment and the transition to civilian life.
According to USA Today, almost 20% of all U.S. police officers are veterans as compared with 6% of the population. Law enforcement departments around the United States rely on a military-to-police pipeline to fill their ranks. This pipeline was reinforced by the Obama Administration, which put tens of millions of dollars into creating veteran police positions in cities and towns across the country.
Those enhanced with greater perception or superhuman strength would have a competitive advantage for some positions such as police or trainers. Any enhanced soldier who returns home to join the police would enhance the overall ability of the force, whether through super strength, greater perception, or the potential to communicate silently with other members of the force, all of which have been discussed here. However, it could also grant the appearance of an “us versus them” mentality within the public or lead to an “inferior versus superior” complex, creating an even greater barrier between those in blue and a nation that is already losing trust in the institution. By allowing veterans enhanced with the newest technologies and weaponry to join the police force once they return from combat, the United States government would appear to be crossing the line between funding military developments and advancing the abilities of our domestic protective force. The unknown of how enhanced police officers may affect police-civilian interaction only contributes to a culture of fear and differentiation between those with badges and those without.
Global arms race (to the bottom?)
Governments are already determining how modern technology can contribute to greater military power. In 2020, John Ratcliffe, who served as Donald Trump’s director of national intelligence, claimed that “China has even conducted human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army in hope of developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities,” and that “there are no ethical boundaries to Beijing’s pursuit of power.” Russian President Vladmir Putin used an annual arms convention in Moscow in August 2022 to boast that his soldiers’ equipment was “decades” ahead of anything that the West has developed and that Russian “super soldiers” would be incapable of feeling “pain or fear.” Pridefully, he claims that his soldiers are no longer human, but rather robotic fighting war machines.
If what Ratcliffe claims is correct, that China truly has “no ethical boundaries” to their pursuit of military power, then certain technologies, such as CRISPR, could allow them to develop spies who are genetically perfected to perform espionage duties, for example. Their use of the technique resulted in global outcry from the scientific community, who claimed that genetic engineering runs counter to international moral codes against “re-engineering the human race for various purposes.”
Many developed countries choose to abide by ethical codes. Doing so, in this case by prohibiting CRISPR and other gene-altering enhancements, would be placing its military at a disadvantage. Take, specifically, the ability to engineer blood to allow soldiers to breathe underwater or be impervious to altitude sickness. The geographical restraints that have assisted many nations with self-protection would lose value. With tensions on the rise in the high altitudes of the Himalayas, for example, respirocytes—or artificial red blood cells—could let soldiers operate in the thin air of high altitudes just like they would down at sea level. Enhanced soldiers would have tactical and biological advantages while operating in varying conditions over those from countries without the resources to modify their soldiers, or over those with specific ethical and moral codes to prohibit any such modification.
In short, our adversaries may use our ethical codes to gain an advantage because they lack similar ethical constraints.
The alternative, however, is just as bleak: every nation leveraging science and technology to create the most lethal warfighters the world has ever seen in order to stay competitive. The military has always utilized advancements in technology to increase lethality, but we have reached the point where we are innovating the soldiers themselves as opposed to the tools; we are altering and enhancing the capabilities that humans themselves have. While certain enhancements, such as anti-bacterial injections, are aimed at protecting soldiers, altering an individual’s genetic makeup warrants questions about the purpose of these innovations. The question then arises whether regulations should be put in place in order to place limits on the use of enhancements to soldier capacity as well as to constrain the lethality and power of the world’s militaries.
DARPA prides itself on “pushing the frontiers of what is possible” which, at times, causes “ethical discussions to fall by the wayside.” Although DARPA’s new soldier enhancement ideas are aspirational at best, they illustrate just how far the agency is willing to push its technology when it comes to the military. However, it is paramount that regulations be developed to respond to the new types of advancements that are currently being discussed.
As for how to regulate, it may be necessary for the United States to look to a global convention to determine the limits of human enhancement in the military context. Similar to the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCWC), which seeks to prohibit or restrict the use of certain conventional weapons considered excessively injurious or whose effects are indiscriminate, this new convention might restrict certain invasive procedures that would forever change the mental or physical capabilities of soldiers. For example, while external armor suits, similar to Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, may be permitted under this new regulation as it is protective in nature, the non-surgical neurotechnology programs that permit soldiers to control swarms of drones with their mind may be seen as excessive, and therefore banned.
Regulatory bodies must differentiate between advancements that have as a primary goal the safety and protection of the soldier from those intended to cause damage and destruction. Further, the bodies should also consider the long-term effects of these enhancements; to mitigate the risk that enhanced veterans may pose on society once they return from combat, the reversibility of procedures should be considered as well. Domestic governments and organizations must be kept abreast of innovations in order to monitor advancements. With this in mind, a model such as the CCCW serves as a compelling example. Originally signed in 1980, the Convention allows for updated protocols to address changes in military technology. The same could be used for a Convention on Certain Warfighter Enhancements.
Certain nations will not comply; Russia and China are not parties to many of the UN conventions against certain weapons, for example. A concern for those nations which do comply with the treaty would be that they might face unethical and unknown technological advances by those non-compliant nations. But this agreement would signal an important moral and ethical standard when it comes to military technology and the treatment of soldiers.
While the creation of “Iron Man” may not be imminent, certain states are already taking steps toward creating real super soldiers. To understand the intersection of modern technology, medicine, and warfare, all states must consider the potential effects of technological and biologically enhanced fighters. It is critical that national and international regulations keep pace with 21st century technology to monitor novel super soldier enhancements and address the ethical considerations surrounding them.
Jeffrey R. Polidor is a graduate student at The Fletcher School of International Relations, where he focuses on the intersection of global business, economics, and their implications for national security. He was an intern in CERL’s 2022 Summer Program.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent CERL’s official views.