Can the Enemy Build a Super-Soldier?

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A newly uncovered report suggests that foreign powers could someday create a supersoldier, perhaps like Dolph Lundgren in Universal Soldier.

Imagine bad guys able to fight without sleep. Or enemy soldiers with hardware implanted in their brains that makes them better able to target U.S. troops than U.S. troops are able to target them. How about future foes able to outfox GIs thanks to the "pharmaceutical intervention" that has improved their "brain plasticity"? Or American soldiers rendered flat-footed and lethargic because a crafty nemesis has been slipping lead into their food.

Just because the U.S. military now lacks what defense eggheads call a peer competitor — a country capable of beating us in a head-to-head confrontation — that doesn't mean it lacks for imagination in conjuring fearful foes. Sure, it was easier for John F. Kennedy to blow smoke about a non-existent "missile gap" with the Soviet Union, or for Ronald Reagan to convince us of the need for a "Star Wars" missile shield when Moscow was still our superpower rival (it may no longer be, but we're still spending $10 billion annually on missile defenses).

In the inaugural edition of the Pentagon's annual Soviet Military Power booklet, published in 1981, then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger warned: "There is nothing hypothetical about the Soviet military machine. Its expansion, modernization and contribution to projection of power beyond Soviet boundaries are obvious." (He was referring to Moscow's invasion and occupation of Afghanistan that had occurred two years earlier — and fell apart eight years later with the Russians' humiliating defeat, followed two years after that by the demise of the Soviet Union itself.)

But if the old Soviet soldier was portrayed as 10 feet tall, the Pentagon has a tougher task today, now that the Soviet juggernaut is gone. The new warning: our potential enemies may be only six feet tall today (okay, five-seven), but they could be 10 feet tall tomorrow.

Today's equivalent of Weinberger's Soviet Military Power booklet is titled simply Human Performance, and it was written by the JASONs, a band of top scientists that advises the Defense Department. Completed in March, it has surfaced thanks to Steven Aftergood, who issues a weekly compendium of interesting government documents for the nonprofit Federation of American Scientists. The report warns that potential foes — none is named, although there is a backwards nod to "East German Olympic athletes" — could put better troops on the battlefields of tomorrow through medication, surgery and mind training. While such changes are not imminent, the study says, the science behind them needs to be monitored carefully so the U.S. military can anticipate what it might face in a future war.

Soviet Military Power was illustrated with cartoonish drawings of Moscow's latest and greatest weaponry, but Human Performance, equal parts Dr. Strangelove and Dr. Frankenstein, is crammed with complex equations and charts that make it tougher to dismiss. "Little is known about the present activities of adversaries in using/developing human performance modifiers," the report says. "This possibility now should be considered with some seriousness, because of rapid advances in understanding brain function, in developing therapies for brain and spinal chord damage, and in psycho-pharmacology." (Try to ignore the misspelling of "spinal cord.")

Understanding "brain plasticity" could let adversaries basically rewire their troops' minds, "permanently establishing new neural pathways" that could "increase troop effectiveness or modify troop behavior and/or emotional responses." New "neuropharmaceuticals" (and you thought the Pentagon was interested only in anti-depressants) "may have the additional effect of weakening or overwriting existing memories," the JASONs warn. They could end up being used "in training programs or field operations." ("The market for these drugs in foreign cultures," the report adds darkly, "should also be monitored.)

If drugs aren't ready, implanting devices to send signals directly into enemy soldiers' brains might work. "Although the present technical capabilities are not impressive, one can consider the potential that an adversary might use invasive interfaces in military applications," the report says. "An extreme example would be remote guidance or control of a human being." (The Pentagon is limiting this kind of work to bugs. The neural tweaks detailed in Human Performance would be performed by "an adversary who may not be guided by the same cultural or ethical concerns that govern U.S. military operations," the report says.)

A big battlefield advantage will be gained by the side that wins the race on "the manipulation and understanding of human sleep," the study notes. "Suppose a human could be engineered who slept for the same amount of time as a giraffe (1.9 hours per night). This would lead to an approximately twofold decrease in the casualty rate. An adversary would need an approximately 40% increase in the troop level to compensate for this advantage."

The scientists also warn that U.S. troops could be weakened by taking diet supplementals obtained from local shops in faraway lands (a 2003 report found 90% of special forces troops and 76% of support troops take such nutrients, including energy boosters, vitamins and protein powders). "Such markets could serve as a method of intentionally poisoning U.S. personnel," the report warns, helpfully suggesting the use of lead salts mixed in with nutritional supplements. "Lead poisoning has a slow onset of symptoms that are easily misdiagnosed in the early stages," it adds. "These symptoms include fatigue, irritability, and difficulty in concentration." That sounds familiar. Based on reports from U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, nefarious enemies may already be at work.