The concept of Enhanced Soldier : Beyond Boundaries

The Concept of Enhanced Soldier : Beyond Boundaries

Article in Saint-Cyr Military Academy Research Center (CREC Saint-Cyr), International Society For Military Ethics in Europe (EuroISME), Enhancing Soldier: A European Ethical Approach, Enriched proceedings of the symposiumheld on October 16,  2019 in Paris, p. 44-59.

Vincent Guérin[1]

« Be all that you can be… and a lot more »

Dr Joseph Bielitzki (darpa)


When you ask a group of people what an enhanced soldier means, both adults and children answer drugs, Terminator or a superhero. The drug relates to a soldier who is no longer completely himself, Terminator to an anthropomorphized machine, the superhero refers to the imaginary of comics and in particular Captain America. These three imaginaries produce an idea of power in the triple sense of producing an effect, of becoming what we are not through an exogenous agent and a supernatural being. What is an enhanced soldier?  The question seems a priori irrelevant, as everyone has a representation on it : it is on this polysemic vision that we wish to anchor the development that will follow. The aim of this text is to question the concept of the enhanced soldier, to give it intelligibility, to delimit its perimeter. In what context was it born? What questions is it associated with? What were the ingredients of its crystallization, its first incarnations ? To do so, we will explore a crucial temporality at the junction of the 20th and 21st centuries, in the United States. We are interested in a singular institution: the DARPA (Agency for advanced defense research projects), one of the creating force of the enhanced soldier, and more particularly one of its departments, the Defense sciences office (DSO).

The concept of the enhanced soldier

In browsing through the literature on the enhanced soldier, what stands out is the diversity of definitions adopted, the difficulties that authors seem to have in grasping its contours and defining its limits. In a 110-page study signed by a team of American researchers led by Patrick Lin, the definition is sixteen pages long[2].

Does it reflect embarrassment in the face of a concept that lacks coherence and is difficult to define ? According to a definition that summarizes these studies, the enhanced soldier would be a healthy person who uses an artificial process, a chemical substance or a technical device to quantitatively and qualitatively push back his physical or psycho-cognitive capacities that are currently allowed by military selection, discipline, intensive training through repetition (drill), progressive immersion in the « bubble of violence »[3]  in order to have a comparative advantage over the enemy. And this, beyond the human exception with exceptional physical and psycho-cognitive qualities.

Anchored in the historical use of psychoactive substances (opium, hashish, coca/cocaine) and then amphetamines[4], the horizon of anthropotechnics diversified in the early 2000s with neuroengineering, which includes neurostimulation and brain-machine interfaces (BMI). The first incarnation of anthropotechnics aims to optimize the human being. In this, it differs from therapy, which seeks to reduce a pathological state, bringing the subject back to the norm: health. There is a fine line between anthropotechnics and therapeutics. For example, promoting the psycho-cognitive resilience of the soldier, modulating a potentially traumatic memory by taking a beta-blocker such as propranolol combined with psychotherapy based on rewriting memories before its final memorization, is this an improvement or a repair? To know whether a substance, a technical device, can be qualified as anthropotechnical, in the absolute, it would be necessary to know its purpose, but also to understand its mode of action, its effects.

In the near future, this primary psychopharmacology will be combined with pharmacogenetics[5], the choice of the substance, its dosage, will be based on the genotype of the soldier, and perhaps one day nanometric particles will deliver the active substance to the exact place in the body. From a holistic, undifferentiated, more or less dangerous approach, with adverse, uncontrolled effects, the use of psychopharmacology could shift to a more tailored, personalized form, with « targeted delivery ».

Upsetting the art of war, the military ethos, the soldier’s habitus, the esprit de corps, enhancement raises doctrinal, legal, ethical, unprecedented and crucial questions. Far from being limited to the military sphere, to the theatre of operations, we can already imagine that it will affect society as a whole, for example in the case of a device decoupled from « necessity military», whose reversibility is not controlled: a path explored in fiction by the novelist Andreas Eschbach in Der Letzte seiner Art[6].

A recent history

We must be weary of linear histories, of a posteriorireconstructions. If there is a common genealogy between the use of drugs in war and the enhanced soldier, this concept is recent. Indeed, at the beginning of the 21st century, there has been a « bifurcation » within anthropotechnics.

The fact that we talk openly about military enhancement, as we are doing now, and display research programs, as the darpadoes, in the form of almost provocation, bears witness to this bifurcation. It should be remembered that the ARPA (the d for Defence was added in 1972) was born during the Cold War from a shock : the placing in orbit of Sputnik in 1957, the first artificial satellite : a breach in American power[7]. In a context of a balance of terror, the Soviets had not only set a decisive milestone in the conquest of space but also and above all announced a probable coupling of long-range ballistic missile technology and a thermonuclear bomb.

Established since 2009 in Arlington, Virginia, close to The Pentagon, darpa, which enjoys relative independence and an annual budget of 3 billion dollars (the American defence budget is more than 600 billion), works closely with the academic and industrial community.

With a pragmatic approach[8], its mission is to maintain an advantage over the enemy at all costs by producing breakthrough technologies. The agency has thus contributed to the birth of the F-117 and Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth aircraft, the Predator UAV, the M16 rifle, the guided bullet, the GPS and Arpanet (the Agency’s network of advanced research projects). Its mission is not only to encourage research, but also to anticipate the threat in order to avoid surprises[9]. Stimulated by various imaginations, arpathen darpawas helped until 2002 by the Jason committee, a club of physicists and mathematicians founded in 1960 which produced many reports, including Human performance[10]. Since 1993, she has been taking advice from sigma, a think tank of science fiction authors[11].

It’s from this « bifurcation » that took place in the United States, at the end of the 1990s, that the historiography relating to the use of drugs by the soldier was born, retroactively forging a genealogy of the enhanced soldier, from which he is partially cut off and which blurs the analysis. The lack of research interest in the study of military drug use until recently seems to support this hypothesis[12].

In 2002, in the report entitled Convergence of technologies for improving human performance, everything was already there[13]. Imbued with transhumanism, a philosophy based on the belief in unlimited techno-scientific progress, the latest avatar of the American technological utopia[14], this document acknowledges the need to instrumentalize a cross-potentialization between nano-bio-info and cognitive sciences (nbic) in order to increase not only human performance but also American productivity[15]. In this document, there is a small text signed by Michael Goldblatt then director of the Defense sciences office (DSO): the darpa technical department most involved in research on the enhanced soldier[16]. Biologist, Michael Goldblatt was recruited in 1999 on a project to develop self-sterilizing packaging for the battlefield and field hospitals[17]. Michael Goldblatt personally declared himself in favour of transhumanist ideas, suggesting that he would do anything for his daughter with cerebral palsy[18].

The dominant idea is that with technology, the soldier has become the « weakest link »in theatre, physiologically and cognitively. The objective is therefore to compensate for the soldier’s biological vulnerabilities by providing him with super capabilities[19]. By developing a « new frontier »  within the darpawhich he places inside the body, Michael Goldblatt aims to produce a super-soldier[20]. This bold approach is part of a biological orientation that began within the darpain 1998 with the Unconventional pathogen countermeasuresprogram led by Dr. Shaun Jones, a former seal officer, whose task is to protect soldiers from an unconventional pathogen.This initial research, according to Michael Goldblatt, consists of protecting the soldier against the unknown and even the unknowable by discovering the mechanisms common to all pathogens[21].

Shortly before the September 11, the United States had been hit by numerous attacks[22]. The biological threat was ubiquitous, as shown in the military scenario called Dark Winter of June 2001, which simulates a large-scale anthrax attack[23]. It is with the budgets devoted to biological warfare[24], and then those aimed at responding to the difficulties encountered by soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, that darpawill finance programs aimed at producing a radical change for the soldier. After having worked for 30 years on armaments, it’s human’s turn to go through the darpa« spirit »filter, an agency whose essence is not to produce incremental research but necessarily radical, disruptive .

A programmatic matrix

From the end of the 1990s, the darparolled out programs which were both optimization and enhancement, and whose research axes still condition the contemporary approach. Fueled by new questions, these programs are opening up new avenues in anthropotechnics. Their common denominator is to be led by iconoclastic researchers, recruited for three to four years, who approach the super soldier, from a biological angle on different scales by reversing perspectives[25]. In this approach, which appears consequentialist, what matters is to keep the soldier alive, to give him every chance to go home, to find those who love him[26].

For example, the program Persistence in Combat (PIC), launched in 2002, aims to make a radical change: allow the soldier to take control of his pain and stop hemorrhage. Under the tutelage of Navy commander and doctor Kurt Henry, this research is done in collaboration with Rinat Neuroscience corporation, a Silicon Valley company. Within this program, neurologist Harry T. Whelan, attached to the Medical College of Wisconsin, works on the rapid repair of damaged tissue by exploring a new technique of wound healing by exposure to infrared light : photo-biomodulation[27].

On another side, the Continuous assisted performance program (CAP), launched in 2002 by neuropharmacologist and founder of Centaur Pharmaceuticals John Carney, aims to extend the soldier’s physical and cognitive activity for 7 days, without sleep (24 /7), by optimizing training, the use of new pharmacological substances and devices. Unlike « classic »brain stimulations based on the intake of caffeine and amphetamines, the program does not aim to stimulate wakefulness, but rather to reduce the need for sleep while accentuating cognitive activity of the soldier. It is explicitly a matter of changing the « operational tempo »[28]. By this reasoning we went from optimization to enhancement. Within the framework of this research, investigations are carried out on animals in particular dolphins and whales which have the reputation of never sleeping; substances such as ampakines which would promote attention, alertness, memory, or modafinil, an « awakener »which also promotes vigilance, are tested but as well new devices such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (tms) which reduces fatigue[29]. John Carney has also been the director, since 2000, theUnconventional pathogen counter measures program  (UPC), whose mission, as we have seen, is to make the soldier’s immune system invulnerable by finding similarities in the genomes of pathogens as different as the bacteria responsible for anthrax, or strains of malaria, make them harmless[30].

Even more ambitious is the Metabolic Dominance program. Begun in 2003[31], it’s directed by zoologist and triathlete Joseph Bielitzki. After a first experience as a veterinarian in a zoo, Joseph Bielitzki worked for nasa, then was recruited by the darpa to conduct research on human strength and endurance. In the specific context of the war of Afghanistan (2001-2014), then of Iraq (2003-2011), it’s a question of accompanying the transition of young recruits towards more rusticity, helping them to face a theater of particularly hostile operation[32]. Unprecedented difficulties which echo the revelations of the Afghanistan papers which show that the soldiers deployed in this place encountered unexpected difficulties due to a lack of knowledge of the enemy, of the terrain but also the absence of strategies and objectives[33].

Faced with these new problems, a new set of questions emerges: what is the right amount of daily calories necessary for the soldier so that he can accomplish his task without being tired? What does the soldier need when he is in combat? How to get the best energy for it?  In general, this program aims to optimize the soldier’s metabolic performance, his energy performance and associated his emotional stability on different scales: nutritional, intracellular. Regarding nutrition, Joseph Bielitzki develops questions of this type: how much energy does a special forces soldier spend per day, 7000 calories? According to the Continuous assisted performance  program, if the soldier is not sleeping, he will need 12,000 calories per 24 hours. Instead of ingesting such an amount of energy, why not suppress the calorie intake and use the one already present in the body? At the granular level, this program attempts to optimize mitochondrial activity, to multiply the « energy centers »  of the muscle cells, to identify the causes of fatigue and to stimulate energy production[34]. Referring to the US Army’s slogan of the 1980s and 1990s, Joseph Bielitzki has an expression: « Be all that you can be », to which he added «  and much more »[35].

In this initial matrix, one approach is at odds with the Brain-machine interface program. Its successive leaders have the ambition to give rise to new technologies to increase the soldier’s performance via access to their neural signatures, coupling the brain to peripheral technical devices[36]to enable « teleoperation », such as taking control of an exoskeleton or a fighter plane, but also to communicate through thought between soldiers[37]. Within the framework of this program, in 2002 the dsoapproached specialists in neuroengineering, which was still emerging. A partnership was established with several laboratories[38].

An acculturated concept

Originating in the United States of America, the concept of the enhanced soldier, with a variable incubation period, has gradually spread to other countries and is subject to acculturation. In France, it was mentioned in 2010 by the Institute for Strategic Research (irsem, Paris) in reference to the report Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance[39]. From 2015, an exploration has been initiated by the Coetquidan schools of Saint-Cyr and its research centre (CREC) ; it will take shape in 2017, during a study day[40]. Some surveys among some French officers show resistance, even fierce opposition to this modulation of anthropotechnics, which contrasts with a first optimization based almost exclusively on psychopharmacology, an aversion even for a soldier perceived as dehumanized, instrumentalized for an end.

On hearing it, one cannot help but be struck by the singularity of the French army in relation to the American concept, the importance given to the physical resistance of the soldier, his mental resilience, his cohesion, the surpassing of oneself by a collective, the legal surpassing and the deep entanglement between body, mind and soul; in a word, the persistence of metaphysics, of humanistic, religious values, perhaps, which contrasts with the consequentialist approach of the United States, which, at least in appearance, has as its end, exclusively the advantage over the adversary, whatever the means. A French approach, hitherto largely conditioned by budgetary constraints that prevent the practice of a serendipity that could produce technological breakthroughs.

How can we explain DARPA’s outbidding, as its director, Steven Walker, recently did when he stated that the agency was working, through the editing of the genome, on targeted manipulations of the soldier, modifying his genetics to make him resistant to diseases and biological and chemical agents?[41]  Is there a desire to neutralize the power game? Does the French army need to fear downgrading?

In Russia, the concept of the enhanced soldier, if it exists, is very recent. In October 2017, President Vladimir Putin announced the forthcoming arrival of a genetically modified soldier who « will be able to fight without fear, compassion, regret and pain »[42]. A statement that echoes the release of the Russian film Guardians, which features soldiers whose appearance has been altered by genetics[43]. In February 2019, the magazine of the Ministry of Defence Armeisky Sbornik suggested that the Russian army had super-soldiers capable of using parapsychology to destroy enemy computers remotely, to read thoughts, but also to understand documents locked in safes, without knowing the language of the text[44]. Is the concept of enhanced soldier relevant to less ethically constrained China?

Extending the limits of the soldier, exceed them

For a long time, anthropotechnics consisted of taking control of the soldier’s chemistry by means of a vector. The aim was to optimize his physiological and psycho-cognitive capacities by stimulating his alertness, attention, concentration and will, as was the case from the 1930s onwards with amphetamines such as pervitine, benxedrine and then dexedrine[45]. In this vein, the use of modafinil, diverted from its therapeutic dimension, appeared to be more effective. Unlike amphetamines, which can cause dependence, nervousness, and anxiety, modafinil has fewer side effects. The challenge for psychopharmacology is to control the side effects. Ideally, a thorough knowledge of the subject would make it possible to avoid, on the one hand, weakening the soldier instead of optimizing him, but also adding uncertainty to a group of combatants registered in a chain of command and mobilized for a specific objective.

The personalization of the optimization coupled with a true informed consent of the soldier would facilitate the work of the military doctor, who is divided between medical ethics and military action[46]. Since Operation Harmattan (Libya) in 2011, the French army has been using extended-release caffeine, a functional food that helps circumvent a potential dependency associated with amphetamines, which are now considered narcotics[47].

Since the early 2000s, the optimization of the soldier, anchored in therapeutics, has been put into perspective by neuroengineering. In contrast to psychopharmacology, it’s claimed to be anthropotechnical from the outset[48]. With neuroengineering, we are witnessing a conceptual leap that no longer consists in pushing the limits of the soldier, but in exceeding them; we are in a discontinuity. Stemming from the information paradigm, initiated by cybernetics, which bridges the biological and the artifact, the human and the machine[49], its objective is to manipulate the brain of the patient or the healthy person. Polymorphic, neuroengineering is embodied in neurostimulation and brain-machine interfaces (BMI).

Neurostimulation can be external (non-invasive) or internal (invasive), temporary or permanent, passive or active. In its external dimension, it includes three approaches: magnetic (TMS), electrical (TDCS) or with the use of ultrasound (Transcranial focused ultrasound-TFUS). Transcranial magnetic stimulation consists of subjecting certain areas of the brain to a magnetic pulse that modifies the activity of neurons. Transcranial direct current stimulation works by means of electrical impulses. These two techniques have in common that they stimulate the superficial part of the brain, no more than 2 centimeters deep. The TMS can be used punctually to fight against tiredness, both would have virtues to stimulate memory and learning. Transcranial focused ultrasound, on the other hand, is associated with the use of magnetic resonance imaging (mri) to direct ultrasound waves precisely to an area of the brain. Unlike magnetic and electrical techniques, it works in depth and with great precision[50]. For a few years now, darpahas been trying to develop helmets equipped with this device.

Besides this external approach, the invasive internal deep brain stimulation (DBS) consists in activating or inhibiting a part of the brain via an implant. Associated with a growing medical spectrum, it could stimulate memory and learning[51]. Invasive, the risks of infection, epilepsy and stroke are to be feared[52].

In addition to these neurostimulation devices, there are brain-machine interfaces (bmi) that literally connect the human in contact with the machine. The first milestones were set with the recording of the electrical activity of the brain by the German neurologist and physician Hans Berger in 1924[53]. Brain-machine interfaces lie at the intersection of computer science and neurophysiology. Although the first work dates back to the 1970s[54], the first invasive brain-machine interfaces, which make it possible to extract information from an animal and human brain, were carried out in the United States at the end of the 1990s by several teams of researchers.

In just a few years, the evolution has been dazzling. In 1997, John K. Chaplin (Hahnemann School of Medicine, Philadelphia) and Miguel Nicolelis (Duke University Medical Center) developed a bmithat allows rats to activate a lever by thought to obtain water (the article is dated 1999)[55]. In 1998, an invasive brain-machine interface designed by Philip Kennedy and Roy Balay (Emory University, Atlanta) gave a person with locked-in syndrome the ability to move a cursor on a screen[56]. In 1999, a non-invasive device produced by Niels Birbaumer gave a person with the same syndrome the capacity for writing words using a word processor[57].

In 2002, darpamade several million dollars available to Miguel Nicolelis and Craig Henriquez[58]to develop a device that allows a female macaque named Aurora to take control of an arm and then a pair of robotic legs by thought[59]. Already, in 2000, the two researchers had developed an experiment described as telekinesis (tele, far, remotely, kinētikós, set in motion) sponsored by the darpa[60]that allowed another macaque named Belle to take control of two robotic arms through thought, one in their laboratory, at Duke University and the other, via the Internet, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit), more than 600 miles away[61]. The challenge of this experiment was to detect the electrical activity of a sample of about 100 cortical neurons distributed 300 milliseconds before a motor action, then amplify, filter and convert this signal into a motor « trajectory». With this interconnection, it’s possible to take control of exosomatic devices (exo « outside » and sauma « body ») by thinking like a swarm of drones, an exoskeleton, a fighter plane; the dream of an extension of the body becomes possible. In 2011, with a brain-machine-brain interface (bmbi), a rat equipped with an implant was not only able to communicate information to a machine (extraction) but also to receive some through brain stimulation (communication). With this kind of device, a robotic arm can provide a tactile sensation like the texture of an object: the exosomatic becomes sensory[62].Even more extraordinary, in 2013, this time with a brain-to-brain interface (BTBI), Miguel Nicolelis succeeded in extracting and sending rudimentary information between two rats equipped with electrodes.[63]Almost simultaneously, a brain-to-brain communication linked a man and a rat, then two men from Harvard Medical School (Boston)[64]and the University of Washington (Seattle)[65].  In both cases, the aim was to extract information from subject A via a non-invasive headset, relay it via the Internet and communicate it to subject B by transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

Born in the early 2000s, optogenetics, which consists of genetically modifying neuronal cells to produce light-sensitive proteins, appears to be the future ofbmi. With this new sensitivity, it will become possible to take control of the activity of a neuronal sub-population with a light beam by exciting or inhibiting them. Equipped with a better spatiotemporal resolution, this combinatorial technique would not affect neighboring cells and would thus optimize neurofeedback.

The enhanced soldier as a mirror

What if one of the ultimate goals of the enhanced soldier was his physical disappearance from the theatre of operations? An answer to the so-called Vietnam War syndrome: the fear that the United States has become too weak to risk the lives of its soldiers, and that the wounded and the dead could turn civil society against the war[66]. In 2001, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard pointed out that by putting their lives on the line to kill, terrorists had revealed America’s Achilles’ heel: the difficulty of exposing its soldiers[67].

Media specialist William Merrin sees with the bmi, after the drone, a further step towards the « telepresence»  of the soldier viathe use of a substitute robot[68]. A concept present in fiction in the films Avatar or Surrogates for example[69]. While telepresence can offer the possibility of carrying out a reconnaissance mission in hostile terrain without exposing a soldier’s life, one may be more skeptical about its ability to offer the possibility for an army to impose its will on the enemy, to win a conflict[70]. Technological solutionism?  We can already imagine that this presence/absence will pose unprecedented problems, that it will require retro-evolution[71].

Isn’t this man/machine interconnection the mirror of a loss of control, the expression of a technological counter-productivity threshold? The symptom of an emerging vulnerability linked to an unbridled quest for technological power. A threat described by the American General John Allen by the concept of hyperwar. A war inscribed in a super-fast machine temporality, with largely automated devices, mediated by an artificial intelligence with autonomous functions[72].

Here, the soldier as «weak link» takes on a systemic color: a system from which humans could be expelled. From this perspective, the strengthened soldier appears as a counter-effect of technological development, a necessary adjustment to the asymmetry that technology allows on the adversary. In other words, the soldier, forced to adapt, is determined by the machine. With this reversal, the US Army is faced with a double technological constraint: an implicit machinic constraint, which comes from within, which is associated with its own power, and an explicit constraint, external this time, that of the potential enemy.


The concept of the enhanced soldier is part of the genealogy of a thwarted power. It originated in the United States in the late 1990s in response to a new vulnerability: the potential use of a biological weapon against the soldier. As a counterpoint, within the DARPA, whose essence is to produce breakthrough technologies, a research has crystallized which consists in making the immune system of the soldier invulnerable. In a context of technological revolution, nourished by transhumanist promises, but also by new military challenges associated with new theatres of operations, the concept has gradually taken shape. At this point, the first anthropotechnical effort to push back the limits of the human bifurcates for a new direction: the emancipation of these same limits. The concept of the enhanced soldier is now underpinned by the need to adapt the human organism to the machine system. A grammar that opens up new biological holds, new connections with the artifact. While this concept of the enhanced soldier is subject to acculturation according to military values and beliefs, one denominator persists in all its expressions: being a revealer. Indeed, behind the exhibition of omnipotence, necessarily illusory, the place, the target of the enhanced soldier reveals where vulnerability lies.

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[14]Damour Frank and Doat David, Transhumanisme. Quel avenir pour l’humanité ? Paris, Le Cavalier Bleu, 2018, p. 29.

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[18]Ibid., p. 312.

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[31]Ibid.,p. 32 ; Defense advanced research projects agency, Fact file. A compendium of DARPA Programs, op. cit, p. 47.

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