27 September 2016

How Far Can the U.S. Military Go to Building a Technology-Enhanced ‘Super Soldier’?

Sept. 23, 2016

How Far Can the U.S. Military Go to Building a Technology-Enhanced ‘Super Soldier’?

Technology that will have a profound, potentially revolutionary impact on the U.S. military is on the way. Some innovations—like new materials, new fuels, automation, autonomy, new manufacturing methods, 3-D printing and better energy storage—will simply make military machines faster, lighter, smarter, cheaper and more accurate. But other technologies have the potential to change and enhance humans themselves.

“We want our warfighters to be made stronger, more aware, more durable, more maneuverable in different environments,” ethicist Patrick Lin wrote in the Atlantic in 2012. Neuroscience, biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence and new drugs may pave the way for dramatic human enhancements, whether by external devices like exoskeletons; implants that expand endurance, cognitive ability and communication; or new drugs that enhance endurance, strength, perception and cognitive ability. “Somewhere in between robotics and biomedical research,” Lin argued, “we might arrive at the perfect future warfighter: one that is part machine and part human, striking a formidable balance between technology and our frailties.” 

U.S. defense officials and military leaders are understandably interested in producing “super soldiers” using human-enhancement technology. When the United States became a global power in the 20th century, it looked for ways to exercise influence around the world and project military power with as few troops and American casualties as possible. To do this, Washington built networks of allies and partners; fielded ever-more precise weapons and better information systems; and stressed qualitative superiority over adversaries, both in human factors like training and leadership, and in technology. Qualitative superiority offset the advantages that America’s adversaries had, whether the numerical superiority of the Soviet Union during the Cold War or, more recently, the advantage that violent Islamic extremists gained by operating close to home and in familiar cultures.

Sustaining America’s qualitative advantage, though, is a never-ending struggle as adversaries adapt and innovate. That is why human enhancement is appealing to senior leaders. But there’s a catch: As this technology matures, it will face mounting political opposition both in the United States and among America’s allies. 

Pushing back on new military technology has a long history. In the Middle Ages, the mounted knights who dominated the economic and political system attempted, with limited effect, to prohibit the crossbow, since it gave commoners a way to kill aristocrats. Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate banned firearms for much the same reason. More recently, moral outrage over poison gas and landmines spawned political movements that had some success in getting these technologies proscribed. Today a number of thought leaders, organizations and movements have coalesced into an international effort to limit or ban “killer robots,” prompting Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to pledge that the United States would never field them.

Ethical challenges suggest that the United States should proceed toward human enhancement with extraordinary caution and foresight, even forgoing it if possible.

The more that human-enhancement technology proliferates and matures, the greater the political resistance to it will become. With the public already wary of biomedical technologies that enhance human abilities, the opposition will decry military human enhancement, arguing that it dehumanizes the troops and adds to the militarization of American foreign policy by making it easier for political leaders to use force. It is easy to imagine political parties on both the left and the right taking a stand against military human enhancement. 

This will have the greatest effect on America’s land forces, the Army and Marines. Since the land forces interact directly with enemies, allies and noncombatants, as opposed to fighting from a distance like the Air Force and Navy, they are intensely interested in human enhancement. Yet they are likely to see some technologies with battlefield utility prohibited.

There are very good ethical reasons for this. While still in the realm of science fiction, someday genetic engineering could combine with technological and pharmaceutical human enhancements to allow the military to create what it might see as the perfect soldier. But however useful the practice might be on the battlefield, it would also raise very troubling ethical questions. Would a military veteran who has been irreversibly enhanced in some way be able to assimilate back into civilian society, or would the veteran have what was seen as unfair advantages over unenhanced humans, thus creating resentment? Would veterans be considered less human than non-enhanced people? If so, would they be ostracized the way Vietnam veterans were in the 1970s? As Col. Dave Shunk asked in Military Review, “Will genetic engineering, neurobiological augmentation, and specialization prevent demobilizing soldiers at the end of a conflict,” thus relegating them to a life apart from the society they served? Could the U.S. military continue to recruit some of America’s best young people under these conditions?

Ethical challenges like this suggest that the United States should proceed toward human enhancement with extraordinary caution and foresight, even forgoing it if possible. But that raises the risk of putting the United States at a competitive disadvantage on the battlefield of the future. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work put it, America’s adversaries “are pursuing enhanced human operations, and it scares the crap out of us.”

The United States has always demanded two things of its military: that it be effective on the battlefield and that it reflect American society and values. Luckily, these are normally compatible, even complementary. Building a more diverse military force, for instance, both reflects American values and augments warfighting effectiveness. But when it comes to the technology of human enhancement, there may be a tension between warfighting effectiveness and national values. Engineered “super soldiers” might be supreme on the battlefield, but they would not reflect America’s humanism. And they might not be able to operate or train with coalition partners, many of which are likely to have their own political movements opposing human enhancement.

Today human enhancement is mostly in the realm of research, theory and concept development. But when the U.S. military reaches the point that it must decide whether to pursue enhancement, tension will mount. Then defense policymakers and military leaders must listen to those pushing back on human enhancement, remembering that society’s values cannot be jettisoned in the name of technological advantage.

Steven Metz is the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.

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