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Beyond Human: Rise of the Super-Soldiers – A Primer

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Beyond Human: Rise of the Super-Soldiers – A Primer

Nilanthan Niruthan

Introduction

For the first time in human history, we live in an age where there are no means to predict the technology dictating life a mere few years from now. Innovations in several fields like medicine, communication and information happen at such a rapid pace that the lifestyle of an average human being today is likely to be unrecognizable from that of someone a decade down the line. The most concerning implication of this phenomenon is in warfare, where policymakers today are already having to confront themselves with emerging technologies that will shake the very roots of how we wage war. The issue of biological enhancement is one of the biggest concerns. Many major powers in the international arena are rapidly developing means to give their soldiers capabilities that transcend human boundaries.

Soldiers having no physical, physiological, or cognitive limitation will be key to survival and operational dominance in the future.” (Jacobsen, 2018). These were not the words of a futurologist or academic, but Michael Goldblatt, the former Director of the Defense Sciences Office, created by the U.S Department of Defense for military research and development purposes. Imagine soldiers who can leap over buildings, communicate telepathically, regenerate wounds instantly and require no sleep. While this would have fit within the comforting realm of science fiction before the 21st century, such capabilities are well on their way to reality. Militaries around the world today are working on technology that enhances the biological capacity of the human soldier (Hanlon, 2018). This study will provide a look into some of the major enhancement methods currently pursued by States. It will then consider how such changes might fundamentally affect warfare. It will not deal with the moral and ethical dilemmas raised by such approaches, as those questions have already been covered in more comprehensive studies (Lin, 2018).

Technological Overview

The first part of this analysis provides an overview of the predominant technological trends that will manifest themselves on the battlefields of the future.

Exoskeletons

In May 2016, it was reported that Hyundai had created an exoskeleton, a ‘suit’ that allowed the wearer to carry 110 pounds and carry the load over long distances without difficulty. It could be revolutionary in its ability to empower the lives of the elderly and victims of spinal cord injury. The company even went as far to compare the new suit with the iconic “Iron Man” suit (Muoio, 2018), which does help one envision where future developments are headed. As a matter of fact, the Raytheon Sarcos XOS, an advanced exoskeleton the Pentagon is currently working on, is said to be so similar to Iron Man that when it was shown to Adi Granov, one of the main illustrators of the comic, he allegedly said “I knew that's where we were heading, but I didn't realize we were this close…that’s Iron Man.” (Mone, 2018). The second-generation version of the suit, XOS 2, already allows the user to lift over 200 pounds several hundred times with no fatigue and punch through three inches of solid wood (McMillan, 2018). The US Special Operations Command is working on a lighter suit called TALOS – which would be used for tactical assaults by infantry forces (Hollings, 2018). The USA is not alone in this; armies around the world are already developing their own programs to use exoskeletons for military applications.

Russia for example, has announced plans to work on an exoskeleton made of titanium (Sharkov, 2018). The Moscow based, State-owned Central Research Institute for Precision Machine Building recently unveiled combat suits called Ratnik-3, to be operational in the next few years. It drew comparisons to fiction once again, with observers noting that they lent a “stormtrooper” effect in appearance (Caughill, 2018). Like its American equivalent, it is said to be capable of lending a great deal of strength, speed and stamina to whoever wears the suit. NATO has woken up too, launching its “Integration of the Exoskeleton in the Battlefield Project”, a series of workshops designed to explore military applications as well (Marinov, 2018).

East Asia is not far behind. In early 2018, it was reported that China and Japan were already engaged in a commercial race to lead the global exoskeleton market, predicted to reach nearly USD 7 billion over the next decade (Prakash, 2018). Japan has been particularly active in developing military interest, revealing a pair of robotic legs that could potentially help soldiers leap great distances with ease, as far back as their 2012 Defense symposium (Simpson, 2018). Earlier this year, the Chinese government’s manufacturer of armored vehicles, Norinco, revealed the second generation of its military exoskeleton (Lin and Singer, 2018), capable of feats comparable to the American and Russian versions.

Genetic Manipulation

Another method currently being pursued to create super-soldiers, is gene manipulation. China has recently made huge breakthroughs in this area, successfully correcting genetic mutations in human embryos, giving birth to the possibility of much greater gene-editing than before. While such techniques will once again be vital in the medical sector, worries still abound that China might use this knowledge to create genetically enhanced soldiers, with physical and mental capabilities that were hardwired into them as embryos. These fears are not unfounded. A few months earlier, Chinese scientists had revealed that hyper muscular test-tube dogs were successfully bred in laboratories (Regalado, 2018). These dogs would have twice the muscle mass of a normal one, with a considerable speed and strength advantage. Once the same can be done with human genes, weaponized soldiers could be created too.

China’s most formidable global rival, the USA, has already identified genome editing as a potential threat, especially from countries outside the Western world that do not necessarily operate within regulatory or even ethical boundaries (Eastwood, 2018). However, it is important to note that the Pentagon has itself invested quite heavily into gene modification research (Neslen, 2018), although not for the enhancement of soldiers. Russia has also been quite vocal in raising concerns over genetically enhanced soldiers. While speaking at a youth festival in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself stated that playing with the genetic code would lead to disaster, adding ominously that such super-soldiers of the future could be more destructive than a nuclear weapon (Jasurek, 2018).

With the pace at which research in genetics is proceeding, it is well within the realm of possibility that States will be able to alter the DNA structure of an embryo, creating a new breed of humans whose biological characteristics are geared towards gaining supremacy in the battlefield. It could be anything from muscular endurance to enhanced senses – there is no quantifiable limit to where such endeavors might take us if these methods are mastered.

Performance Enhancing Drugs

The use of drugs to empower soldiers to function beyond their normal limit is nothing new. Icelandic folk tales suggest that the infamously ferocious Viking “berserkers” could have been under the influence of agaric mushrooms and bog myrtle (Holloway, 2018). The use of stimulants like amphetamine is now being used by non-State actors like ISIS as well, who exploit the sense of euphoria and fearlessness it gives (Sisk, 2018).

In 1937, Pervitin was patented in Nazi Germany, a methamphetamine-based drug that enhances physical performance and helps resist fatigue. It is said to have played a crucial role in German victory in the invasion of France, as drugged soldiers marched through perilously exhausting terrain for two days without sleep and broke through French defenses (Cooke, 2018).The drug became so much of a threat that factories producing it had to be bombed by the Allies (McCarthy, 2018). Essentially, those Nazi invaders were early prototypes of super-soldiers.

The use of performance enhancing drugs in war took an even steeper plunge in the Vietnam War, when many U.S soldiers were under the heavy influence of stimulants like amphetamine, which helped them stay alert. So rampant was the use of drugs that it has even been called the first “pharmacological war” (Rickett, 2018). There are a number of supplements and drugs on the market today meant to help one pay attention longer, think faster, remember more etc. As they grow in potency, the cognitive benefits they give would be far beyond what we perceive now.

The potential for using drugs to create super-soldiers goes well beyond that. Drugs could help soldiers break natural limits effortlessly. According to Ben Chitty, senior project manager for biomedical, human performance and canine portfolios in the Science and Technology office of the US Special Operations Command, some of the abilities that are being explored at the moment are those humans are not biologically adapted to, such as breathing in high altitude and even underwater (Larter, 2018).

While military experts outside the USA have been skeptical of how successful such drugs could be, it is quite possible that the other global powers are currently pursuing options along these lines as well, albeit unreported. Considering the number of nature’s laws that have already been subverted by pharmaceutical drugs (the eradication of various diseases for example), it is not far-fetched to assume that they would go a long way in helping us bypass physical and cognitive limits.  

Surgical Implants

In 2011, Russian media giant Pravda made controversial statements about super-soldier experiments conducted on Russian volunteers as far back as World War II. It claimed that from 1936 to 1941, Soviet scientists implanted golden electrodes into the brains of hundreds of volunteers, thereby controlling the nerve centers to make them immune to pain. It also stated that physical enhancements were tried during this period, with their limbs receiving titanium implants that allegedly protected soft tissue against landmines, shells and gunshot injuries (Ackerman, 2018). It alleged that these experiments were eventually deemed a failure, as the implants created tumors and the bones rejected the metal. While these claims have been rubbished by numerous commentators, there is legitimate research underway today along similar lines.

The U.S military has already invested over 65 million USD in developing a software that can be uploaded to the human brain that will not only heighten the senses of the soldier, but could make them highly resistant to blindness and paralysis (Martin, 2018). The enhancement of senses would extend beyond normal limits, including night vision and the ability to detect magnetic fields (Holmes, 2018). Implants have been touted as possessing great potential in the field of medicine, with armies already trying to decipher how they can be used to fight mental and physical illnesses in the battlefield. However, it does not end there.

Feats that would be considered telepathy and mind-control in a different era, are close to being possible today thanks to microchip technology. In 2013, Duke University in North Carolina reported that they had successfully managed to make lab rats communicate telepathically, using implants inserted into their primary motor cortex (Heaven, 2018).  Russia may not be far behind the USA either, as senior American officers are already accusing Russian scientists of working on enhancement implants to create super soldiers. On the battlefield, abilities like telepathic interaction would mean combatants could liaise with each other even quicker and over longer distances. A warning call would no longer involve a dramatic shout and response – it could be a neural message sent right into an ally’s brain to duck. Undercover operatives in a crowded marketplace could ‘talk’ to each other while apart, pretending to be busy shopping.

Impact on Warfare

This section of the study shall now focus on the various ways in which warfare might be transformed, once these technologies start enabling States to operationalize super-soldiers.  The predominant mode of conflict we see today is often characterized as “unconventional” warfare. Typically, these fights involve both State and Non-State Actors, there is no fixed physical space that is designated as the battlefield, civilians are often targeted in attacks, and distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants is almost impossible.

Flipping the Asymmetry?

The most obvious question that instantly comes to mind is whether this will ‘flip’ or counter the advantages non-State actors enjoy in an asymmetric matchup, where smaller insurgent groups can often defeat wealthier States. Most comprehensive studies on the history of irregular warfare seem to identify a handful of common factors guerillas use to their advantage against larger armies – mobility, stealth and terrain familiarity (Boot, 2013). In a match-up between an insurgent force and a State army, the former depends on the excellence of individuals and small groups rather than larger formations. With the rise of super-soldiers however, it remains to be seen if this imbalance will continue to exist, given how States are far likelier to develop such technology before non-State actors do.

As familiar as an insurgent group might be with the terrain, as stealthily as they might be able to move about, as swiftly as they may be able to strike, would groups like the Vietcong or Mujahedeen really have been as effective against the USA or USSR respectively, if the global powers at the time had individual soldiers capable of superhuman feats? It is often the lack of maneuverability that is the undoing of larger forces against insurgents. If States can wield the same kind of hard power through a small contingent of enhanced soldiers as having a large military footprint, insurgent groups will find themselves facing a completely new adversary, who plays the same game they do but with vastly superior skills. It is even possible that unconventional warfare no longer remains the preferred fighting style of insurgents.

The situation of course, could be reversed in the case of proxy warfare. It is not difficult to envision a scenario where a State that does possess such knowledge imparts it to a non-State actor operating in another State’s territory. This could lead to a terrifying situation where the insurgents, unbound by legal or moral obligations, now have the type of abilities that make guerilla warfare even more effective against a larger army without such enhancements. This is especially concerning given the frequency with proxy warfare happens around the world today, since the world’s nuclear powers are no longer in a position where they can afford a direct confrontation with each other.

If it is possible for States to create super soldiers, the same technology lent to an insurgent or terrorist group could well lead to another nightmare on the battlefield – the super-terrorist, capable of all the destruction with none of the responsibility. Particularly worrying is the trend of ‘Fidayeen’ attacks, a model of assault in which a small cluster of well-trained commandos engage in fierce combat with a selected target, wreaking as much havoc as possible. It is not a suicide attack per se, as the goal of the assailant is not to die but to inflict as many casualties as possible before succumbing to injuries or escaping (Sullivan and Elkus, 2015). While far more difficult to execute than a bomb blast or rural ambush, it attracts unprecedented media attention and strikes a more critical blow against the psyche of the nation and its population. Fidayeen attacks are becoming the favorite tactics of insurgent groups.

Though such assaults have been common for more than a decade, it was not until the 26/11 slaughter in Mumbai that it came to the fore. Jihadist groups all over the world have emulated it since then, most notably in events like the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi and the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. They often have tragic consequences, like in December 2014 when 132 children were slaughtered by the Pakistani Taliban is one of the most gruesome Fidayeen attacks ever. If crudely trained terrorists with a low budget are capable of such destruction, the potential for what super-terrorists can inflict on an unsuspecting city is perhaps better left unsaid.

Making Intervention Easier

The advent of super-soldiers could also make it much easier for the States who possess them to resort to war. The loss of life and limb to soldiers in combat is often the backbone of anti-war sentiment, especially in protracted conflicts, and is a restraining factor for any government’s military ambitions. The anti-war movement strongly affected the public mood against American intervention in both Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the Vietnam War decades earlier. In Sri Lanka, the enormous losses incurred by the army against the LTTE demoralized the country so greatly in the 1990s that Presidential candidates rose and fell based on their ability to convince the population they would be the ones to deliver peace. Even in undemocratic societies, where public pressure may not be as potent, casualties do inhibit the State’s ability to build nationalistic fervor and rally the people to support a military venture.

Consider American drone strikes in Pakistan. Since the program started in 2007, it has been reported that over 600 civilian lives and over 2500 combatants have been killed (Serle, 2016). However, there is little to no examination of this in mainstream American media. There are no nationwide protests and daily debates on the price paid by the nation for such a war. This is largely due to one reason – no American soldier has been sent home in a casket because of the drone offensive in Pakistan. It is clear that the use of force in a foreign land can fail to become a “talking point” back home, when there are no soldiers returning dead. As casualties drop with the birth of combatants who are nearly impossible to kill, richer States that get their hands on enhancement technology could find themselves able to wage war far more rampantly than before, without having to worry about public pressure.  

Conclusion

Technology is never deterministic; it never really tells us what to do with it. It is the responsibility of policymakers to decide how regional and international powers respond to this. While it might sound frightening, it is worthwhile to remember that these advancements will also lead to unbelievable progress in medicine, with the same empowerment methods used to help those with genetic disabilities, paralysis, dementia and a host of other debilitating conditions. On the battlefield, the real impact will ultimately come down to which path humanity chooses to pursue. The one constant in the history of warfare is the arrival of new types of fighters – the disciplined legionnaire, the guerilla on horseback, the heavily armored knight, the suicide assassin; they were the equivalents of super-soldiers in their era. While it must be said that biological enhancements can change warfare on a far greater scale, one can still draw some comfort from the fact that humanity is still here, always adapting and surviving. For now. 

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About the Author(s)

Nilanthan Niruthan is a defense analyst and researcher for the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, Colombo. His writing revolves around global security, having covered issues like hybrid warfare, lethal drones, maritime piracy, human shields and urban insurgency for various international publications. He also teaches Low Intensity Warfare at the Defense Services Command and Staff College, the highest seat of military education in Sri Lanka. He is a recurring guest on radio and television news shows to discuss current affairs.He has also contributed in formulating security policy in the South Asian region, for bodies like BIMSTEC.